Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pruning Apple Trees

Spring! Or summer? Or still winter? It got so weirdly hot last week (over 80 here)...and then it got cold again and we got several inches of snow yesterday.

One way or another, I feel like I turned some intangible corner about a week or ten days ago where I went from spending most of my time sitting hunched over my laptop planning things out to putting on my grubby farm clothes and actually doing stuff. Feeling satisfyingly body-tired instead of just brain-tired at the end of the day. Running in and out of the house/cellar/garage/yard so often that the cats are all staring at me with bewildered looks on their faces.

I've spent parts of the last two Saturdays participating in two fruit tree pruning workshops offered by MOFGA in preparation for tackling the eight mature apple trees at our place that haven't been tended to for about eight years. I had started to do some hand-wringing, since it's warmed up so early this year and the trees are already breaking dormancy (the ideal pruning time is before that happens but after the risk of subzero temperatures has passed). But I'm glad I did wait until after going to the workshops, because I got some good advice and was allowed to hack away at someone else's trees before having a go at ours. If you walk through the orchard at the Common Ground Country Fair or pass by the elementary school in Swanville this year and think "who the heck pruned THAT tree?!," you might be looking at the work of yours truly and her fellow pruning students. But really, I think we did a pretty good job, and I definitely have a better idea of what I'm doing now.

Pruning is kind of addictive - going to sleep after a day of it, I was seeing tangled branches in my head the way I see Tetris after playing it too much. And it was nice to have an excuse to monkey around in trees, something I was very into as a kid. Also, I got to run around the yard looking like this all day (too bad nobody else was around to appreciate such stylishness!):

Really, the trees have been doing their own thing just fine - but alas, "their own thing" means sending out dozens of vigorous sprouts that grow straight up and block air and light from the lower branches that I want to produce fruit. The rule of thumb is to only remove a quarter to a third of the wood on a given tree in a given year, and I was definitely pushing that ratio with some of them. We may have fewer apples for a couple of years, but they'll probably be bigger and less affected by scab. And hopefully I won't have to spend almost two hours per tree pruning them next year now that the big bad stuff is out of the way.

Before

Then I did this about 200 times...

...although most of the branches I took out weren't quite this big.

After

Pruning trees felt very different than most farm work does for me - you never spend hours fussing over one leek or broccoli plant. It felt like the start of a relationship - a give-and-take in which we do most of the taking of fruit and unwanted branches but plan on giving back some mulch and nutrients along the way (not to mention endless mowing). The vigor and hardiness of these trees are amazing - decades of Maine winters and they're still ready for action. As I was sitting sprawled on the ground after finishing the last tree, I was facing an empty spot where one tree in the planting must have died at some point...and then I noticed a cluster of woody sprouts right in the spot where that tree's trunk would have been. It's the rootstock, still pushing up shoots after having been mowed down I don't know how many times! In case anybody needed a definition of resilience...

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