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Rambling on Pruning

Posted by Andy Brennan 
Rambling on Pruning
March 14, 2021 04:13PM
I apologize in advance for the commitment it requires to read me. Thank God (and Michael) for a forum opposite the A.D.D. world of social media. They have word-count limits! Still, if you want the short and narrow of what I have to say it’s three things: Everyone prunes differently; I hate formulaic pruning (or any sort of formula in the art of cultivation); and don’t think for a second you understand the scope of what you’re doing.

You can stop right there if you want to, I urge you, but if you want an example of my self-doubting, Malthusian and fatalistic way of looking at cultivation, well, without further ado, a story…

Our 200 year old house came stocked with a healthy population of Pholcus Phalangioides, an arachnid commonly called the Long-Bodied Cellar Spider because of it’s lengthy legs and skinny thorax (it’s basically the giraffe of house spiders.) The amusing thing about this insect is that when it’s poked it spins around in circles like a whirling dervish so fast you can’t see it anymore, it’s just a blur of a wheel. But otherwise it’s a peaceful little guy that builds webs in the corners of the ceiling. We hardly ever notice them.

Anyways, we co-existed with the spiders for years but eventually their webs became too much for us. Dust would get trapped and they’d hang heavy like gray cotton candy. Visitors accused of us of living in a haunted house and we saw their point. So last summer we decided it was time to take back our dwelling and I vacuumed the ceiling, evicting the spiders, home and all.

Then apple season came and went. The summer humidity went away and the stove fires sucked the remaining moisture out of the house. Then, as they do every December, red squirrels made their way in to test our cohabitation tolerance. They’d wake us up at night with all their running around and occasionally knock something off the counter. One morning I even discovered an entire bag of pistachio nuts emptied and presumably relocated somewhere in our walls. I can picture him now cracking the shells and watching Netflix on a tiny screen!

We’ve come to expect squirrels and mice to come in and establish winter dens but the noise only bothers us in December. Eventually, as the winter drags on their activity dies down and we can sleep again in peace.  We’re pretty tolerant of this pattern but this January a new pest has come inside to claim this old house: Mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes are ubiquitous in the summer and although they are annoying to humans we’ve evolved to tolerate them to an extent. But when they’re buzzing around in winter it’s something I can’t overlook. It’s only a small population we’re talking about (I get bit only once or twice a week), but still the peculiarity has made me obsesses on finding their source. I’ve flushed the P-traps under the sinks, checked the sump pump, and drained the dishwasher and washer machine basins. I’ve also quarantined the plants and went through all the cabinets looking for pots that might have standing water. Still, the mosquitoes buzz.

Then, just as I started pruning the apple trees it hit me like a flash:  I’m noticing mosquitoes now because I removed all the spiders!  I wanted a clean house so I removed the dusty webs but that action continues to reverberates throughout space and time, literally biting me in the ass.
Every branch cut from an apple tree in America causes a feather to fall from a bird in Australia. Then that feather falls and a mouse uses it to build a nest in a tree hollow. Which allows for 142 babies from that one mouse! Which allows for more snakes (good, right?) Which allows more eagles (good, right?) But that’s a problem for the free-range chicken farmer. Which means Smith and Wesson stocks rise. Which allows for a family on Central Park South to buy another home in the Catskills. But they don’t want that “manicured look”, it’s not in, and yet they feel good about their land being used. So they call me to forage the apples on their land. Which is interesting to the people at Chelsea Green, they gamble on a book deal. Which encourages me to be a writer. And now I annoy everyone with words. And more words. Like this. And this.

But I bet you didn’t know YOU were responsible for it all. I bet you thought were doing the right thing by letting more air flow into the center of the tree. Wind flow stops disease from setting it. Light penetration too. That’s what you were thinking but little did you know without that branch folding back toward the center of the tree a robin has less cover for a nest. So it chooses your neighbor’s yard instead. Now you have more bugs. Like the roundheaded apple borer. And the tree you were trying to prune for health is now dead from the larva. And still we plow forward. I’m no different. I cultivate

Andrew Brennan
Aaron Burr Cidery
-
Wurtsboro, NY
Lower Hudson Valley
Zone 5a



Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 03/15/2021 12:38AM by Andy Brennan.
Re: Rambling on Pruning
March 14, 2021 07:22PM
Dare I describe my cidermaking friend as raucous? That's what you'll read in my review comments for Uncultivated on the HON Bookshelf. What Andy does now in this pruning ramble ferments all the better on the printed page with a glass of cider in hand.

Meanwhile, my pruning mind revolves around this notion of sunlight penetration. I've trained my eye to see the "light space" between branches as much as I see the branches themselves. Righteous cuts reveal this space and the trees in turn are left with a more balanced "bud load" where nearly every developing fruit will receive the air and sunshine needed to reach it's full potential. That's the theory anyway.

Having memories of picking in especially tangled trees in days gone by – needing to literally thrash one's way to the fruit – also helps. Larger cuts can be totally about providing an access lane for a happy ladder placement come harvest time. That's the theory anyway.

This particular pruning season I'm also on the lookout for "ugly stubs" left from last summer's fire blight adventures. Proper pruning cuts were not made at that time as the cut surfaces were quite likely to become infected anew in the growing season proper. Now is when I have the satisfaction of cleaning up my trees from this bacterial scourge. That's the theory anyway.

And then what joy knowing now we get to be outside, day after blessed day with our trees, launching an entirely new season of hope. Here in Lost Nation and apparently in Australia as well...

Lost Nation Orchard
Zone 4b in New Hampshire



Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 03/14/2021 07:51PM by Michael Phillips.
Re: Rambling on Pruning
March 15, 2021 03:55PM
I may have neglected to mention how much I love pruning. Despite the uncertainty of (or probability of) messing-up a wiser-than-Man cosmic balance, I’m going to prune anyway. It’s my chance to participate like no other, to see myself in the tree’s life, in all of Nature. To see my cuts ten years later; to think ten years in advance; to find equality in what the tree wants and what I want (nothing short of discovering the overlap of Nature and Human Nature -- like adjusting binoculars and having the two round windows move closer, hopefully as one); and to develop one’s own “style”… that’s what it’s all about. Oh, and Zen. You can’t undersell that. The inner peace that develops when crawling about INSIDE a tree (which is what it is), priceless.

Trial and error is the only rule I know of. How does an artist develop their style? Through serious disappointment. When you see a Bellini you see marble so thin that light passes right through, you don’t see the thousand broken sculptures tossed out back. But they’re there. And so is self-loathing. There are times when I’ve felt truly sick with my cuts (like when I’ve cut too much out and the spring shoots curl black in July -- lifeless question marks -- oh my God, talk about dread!) But artists and farmers (good ones) persistent because there is more to be gained than money, more to be gained than even a masterwork … we envision an intense satisfaction, all those rewards mentioned above. Hence we endure.

There's the myth of "the outsider artist", the one who emerges without schooling or awareness of other artists. No such person exists. Community is all-important and there are formal skills that one can teach. Here in lies the paradox of great art and great farming, certainly great pruning. One must study those formal skills and be acutely aware of other people's lessons. While at the same time, one must have faith in their own originality. Rebellion is a common stage but it's unnecessary (I learned that late.) All that 's necessary, I think, is the hope that we'll find correctness in what we do. However it happens.

Andrew Brennan
Aaron Burr Cidery
-
Wurtsboro, NY
Lower Hudson Valley
Zone 5a



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 03/15/2021 04:11PM by Andy Brennan.
Re: Rambling on Pruning
March 17, 2021 01:49PM
A delightful ramble because it cast a reflection on my recent efforts, looking for the space, so each bud is graced with sunlight, wondering how many shoots is enough to leave after last years' burst from topwork, noting the places I want to return to on the 2 ft thick trunks later and next to see if what I imagined would happen, did. This year I actually hung some surveyor tape in places to be sure to notice and examine in due course. Cutting long shoots in the middle looking forward to side shoots and spur buds.
The 7 trees in the 100 yr old orchard spurned me last year; no fruit to speak of. Now will I leave well enough alone?

Old 99 Farm and permaculture site
Dundas ON 5b
Re: Rambling on Pruning
March 18, 2021 06:21PM
A friend of mine taught me a bunch of obscure words that relate to this thread. I’ve had these concepts in mind when pruning all year but then, magically, Ian and Michael both posted similar thoughts that further compelled me to see pruning this way: We are inside the tree. As we prune, we cut a path for our own access too. In doing so, we make ourselves part of the tree, now and in the future.

If this isn’t the truest form of holistic orcharding I don’t know what is. And it’s a lesson I think we can all bear-in-mind (even if just subconsciously.) And, yes, I do mean ALL of us, because it’s something that people with small young trees and bush-orchards can practice too, assuming one sees the orchard as a single being (which is particularly easy nowadays given most trees are literally clones from the same organism!)

Please consider the Japanese word, shinrin yoku, which means forest bathing. The concept is beyond me to understand or explain but the benefits are obvious to anyone who’s ever been in the woods. I mean, come on, to be inside the protection of trees, away from the outside world... need we say more?

OK. I will. I’ll toss another obscure word out there to consider for pruning: psithurism. It’s an ancient Greek word that means “the rustle of leaves” and can be likened to wind-flow through the branches. Think about the sounds of a well-pruned tree versus a crowded disease-ridden tree! Psithurism, btw, is onomatopoeic.

Another great Japanese concept, Komorebi, is the study of light through the trees. It’s integral to shinrin yoku but it’s philosophically fascinating on it’s own. To see the sun’s rays parted by branches (and seemingly joined again on the other side) is to give the forest-bather or orchardist a perspective that in the West only artists tend to see -- the vision of “negative space.”

Negative space needs no introduction, but to practice it as a pruner try to picture the empty areas as heavy as the positive (the tree, the buds and the branches.) It’s hard, isn’t it? But with enough practice you can not only see negative space simultaneously, you can also experience it as an equal force. It’s the most profound experience I’ve had in all my 40+ years drawing but sculptors say they deal with the same thing when they approach a block. And if a sculptor can say it!

All of the above concepts can be studied online but I strongly urge you to draw pictures of your trees (from life, not from memory or a photo.) It’s amazing how much a new perspective can offer. And speaking of, I thank all who've bothered to write or communicate ideas to me. I love reading about people's experiences. I'm not a wolf tree, I need my forest.

Andrew Brennan
Aaron Burr Cidery
-
Wurtsboro, NY
Lower Hudson Valley
Zone 5a



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 03/19/2021 03:43PM by Andy Brennan.
Re: Rambling on Pruning
March 27, 2021 01:33AM
I find many points made in this here “rambling” to strike pretty darn close with my experiences over the last few years.
First and foremost, living just across the river from Wurtboro in Northewastern PA, I too seem to find a hatch of mosquitoes seemingly permeating from my walls each winter. Truthfully, I’m glad I read this because I thought I was the only one. While Andrew points out his spiders, I too worked to remove a family of bats from my attic upon purchasing my property just 2 years ago. 6 months later the mosquitoes emerged. It really set truth to the idea of taking action with the holistic approach in mind.

I also really love the 3 points that were made for those who wanted to skip the reading. Particularly the last one mentioning the understanding of the scope of pruning. I work as an orchardist at a resort type establishment. While the production of fruit for the restaurant is key I am also required to do a fair amount of education (think classes, tours, workshops). My first season working in this particular orchard I decided to take on the (nearly impossible) task of teaching a full fledged pruning class. While I admit I BY NO MEANS am a pruning expert I do feel confident and comfortable with a set of sheers in my hand. Getting to the point, the class was an absolute bust. I learn really quickly that the variables from on tree to the next is excruciatingly hard to explain to “common folk”. I found my self in many of those classes with my back in the corner as my “students” questioned me about why I’m breaking my own “rules” as I move tree to tree. Long story short, I don’t teach pruning classes anymore. Without the pruning classes I’ve found a bit more clarity in my work and really dig into that “inside of the tree” feeling. I find that my pruning ritual is now more of a chance for myself to be completely alone in the orchard and to go tree by tree and simply exist with them. It almost seemed as if we communicate without ever muttering a word.

This all really leads me to the mention of shinrin yoku, or forest bathing. While I am not a certified practitioner, some of my coworkers are (forest bathing is on this list of activities at this particular resort). When I first learned of forest bathing I thought it was a load of BS designed to exploit city dwellers, but soon realized that it is simply what I do each day out in the orchard. I find the forest to be my greatest teacher within the orchard (sorry Michael, your a close 2nd!!). Ive spent decades tromping though the woods from childhood all the way into adulthood and feel that each time I return with a revelation my orchard seems to move farther in the direction of the healthy ecosystem I am attempting to obtain. While the crowds of “bathers” moving through my orchard may be a bit distracting at times, I immediately recognize why most of the forest bathing excursions I’ve witnessed have started in my orchard and then moved deeper into the woods. This here is a wonderful moment to realize that even if the orchard stands as an unproductive plot, each year as people file through it also functions as a way to open the eyes of humans; showcasing how agriculture can be shaped in such a way that we can produce benefits for the land and the health of humans that simply stop for a moment to observe. I believe those connections made in the human brain far surpass the sweetness of any apple.

Blackmore Farm
Hawley, PA

Zone 5b
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