January 31, 2010

It’s a little after 6pm, and I’ve just come in from the end of something like 4 solid days of pruning trees and shrubs. There are a few little things left to do but mostly it’s done. What fascinated me about the job this year, aside from wondering what I was thinking to own over 70 fruit trees that need intensive pruning, was how I could have been doing this for all these years somewhat incorrectly.

This is clearly the year that the lightbulb came on as to how to properly shape stone fruit trees (plum, peach, apricot, nectarines). Pruning isn’t really that easy, and it is no wonder that homeowners quail at this annual job that everyone says must be done each winter. There is a lot to think about. What kind of tree? Dwarf or standard? Open center system, central leader system, espalier, or something completely different? How old is the tree?,  since that matters too as to technique. Apple versus jujube, plum versus cherry, fig, mulberry, the complexity runs all over the place. At the end of the day, each pruning technique is designed to compliment and keep under control the growing habits of a given kind of fruit. An untended cherry will grow one or two sticks 25 feet into the air unless forced to do otherwise. Apricots and peaches will immediately grow rampantly and guarantee their own demise by ending up in a shape unable to support the weight of the fruit that they are bred to bear, and if no intervention comes along the tree will be a split and diseased ruination in about 3 years. I remember once reading a backyard orchard website….it asked “are you prepared to forego weekends, vacations, and free time in order to properly care for your trees?” That sounded pretty heavy-handed to me….but I see now what they meant. In a way it’s true…trees have specific needs at specific seasons, and if you can’t commit to being available to do what the trees need, when they need it, the vision of luscious cherries or dripping sweet peaches is a pipe dream that will never come to be. We figure we have invested more than $3000on purchases for our orchard, which totals out at more than 120 trees. It is an investment in, and hope for, the future. A $25 stick that arrives in January will, in something like 5 years time and after a lot of care, yield unsurpassed food. When one purchases a fruit tree, the idea of waiting that long for results is a killer….in our society a “long time” is something like a month.  One always has to think, to quote my farming partner, “it isn’t about fruit. It’s about the needs and the health of the tree.” And what is unsaid, is that it is about the distant future, when, if all the right things are done, the best fruit you’ve ever had will be the reward for good work. It is hard to resist, in the beginning, letting the little tree set 30 peaches because you just want to taste them so much! But it’s not the right thing to do. Year one, cut every little branch off until there is nothing but a stick in the ground. Year two, choose the best looking sideshoots to become the future main branches of the tree. Remove any fruit. Year three, strip off almost all fruit deliberately, to promote healthy vegetative growth, while pruning to further strengthen and shape the tree. Year four, maybe let a little bit of fruit set, carefully monitoring that the weight isn’t too much for the structure of the tree. Afterward, monitor and prune annualy to keep a good shape and remove diseased or damaged wood while still making sure again, that there isn’t too much fruit on the tree. I had to laugh this year, because as I was planting the 5 new arrivals we purchased (4 pluots and an aprium–gettin’ fancy!) and stripping all the sideshoots off, I realized that I could do this so easily because “the thrill is gone”. Once the time has elapsed and one actually has a producing trees, it is easy to give the new ones the right care….there is no need to wait with bated breath for the fruit because 20 other trees are doing the job nicely. Of course, we’re lucky, as it would be madness to have this many trees without having customers. It’s probably still madness, but at least it sounds like a good excuse on paper. Our orchard is probably 20%-25% mature at this point in time. When it is fully mature, the yields will be more than I’ll know what to do with. We’re already looking at commerical sized dehydrators in order to be able to maybe handle some of the surplus…ah well, lotsa fruit!