Eight Lone Rangers

This weekend I pruned our fruit trees.

There were three ancient apple trees in the yard of my childhood home. These trees consistently gave great apples without much maintenance. What I didn’t understand at the time was that the pruning for such productivity had been done decades before we moved to the house. All we did was give the trees a haircut each spring, pruning off the new shoots. These shoots are the branches that go straight up from the main branches. They were easy for us to recognize and prune out because they were straight and had darker bark than other branches. We rarely had to think about the structure of the tree or correct any problems. A wise pruner had done that for us a long time before.

Our bountiful apples and easy pruning led me to greatly underestimate the complexities, as well as the joys, of starting my own orchard.

But that is exactly what I did. Soon after we broke ground to build our house in 1987, I went out and got myself a gaggle of apple and pear trees.

When I taught English to high school students in the 1980’s, I would give them an unidentified list of apple varieties. If they could tell me what the list described, I would give them an extra 100 quiz score to boost their grade point average. They could research this list any way they wanted, but few figured it out. In this age of Google, probably everyone would solve the puzzle, but back then it was an obscure, mysterious list.

I loved giving this list to my students, It was poetry. It was history. It was the realm of nature and human imagination meeting. I was just as in love with the names of the apples as the apples themselves.

Winter Banana, Baldwin, Northern Spy, Yellow Transparent, Spartan, D’Arcy Spice, Chiver’s Delight, Howgate Wonder, Gravenstein, Westfield Seek no Further, Ashmead’s Kernel, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Grimes Golden, Chenango Strawberry, Sheepnose, Black Twig, Spitzenburg, Wolf River, Summer Rambo, Duchess of Oldenburg, Red Astrachan, Peasgood Nonsuch.

My love for the names caused a beautiful mistake. There were so many apple trees with magic names to love and embrace, I didn’t ask the Angels for advice about what varieties of trees to plant. Instead, I went ahead and ordered eight different apple trees bearing marvelous names and three different pears.

This worked fine with the Pear trees. The three I planted happened to happily cross pollinate. Most years, we have a good crop of pears. The apples have been a different story.

Apple trees are like pears in their need for cross pollination. They will not set a good crop with their own pollen. This means an apple tree should not be planted singly but needs a partner as pollinator. Different kinds of apple trees may seem to bloom at the same time, but they actually bloom across a three week period with blooms being available for pollination only a short number of days in this period. The cross pollinator one chooses must bloom at the exact same time. I chose apple trees that don’t bloom at the same time. Eight lone rangers.

Another issue in pollination is proximity. One would think that all the wild apples in our hedgerow and in the cultivated apples next door at Teddy’s would provide a cross pollinator or two for our eight, but even if there is a match, it doesn’t help. There is a limit to how far a bee will travel on its pollen and nectar seeking forays before it returns to the hive. Therefore the cross pollinators need to be close together. Trees at Teddy’s don’t solve our cross pollination problems as they are well outside the rough guide of no more than sixty feet between cross pollinators.

I put these eleven trees in a ring around one of the vegetable gardens. The reason there are not a symmetrical twelve trees is that the granite ledge beneath our property is so close to the surface where these trees were planted that the place for the twelfth tree was bare ledge. The other trees don’t have much more soil. I would say that the most any tree was planted in was a foot of soil. I improved what soil there was with compost and various other organic soil amendments, but really, these are valiant trees to have grown in this spot.

Not only did these beloveds have a difficult environment in which to flourish, but I didn’t understand how much radical pruning I needed to do during the first years of their lives here. I thought that fruit trees naturally branched out, whereas I was to learn that most branches naturally go up. They need to be pruned to go out. They need to be pruned to have an organized set of branches.

One reason for pruning them outwards into organized layers of branches is because the fruit needs light to ripen. If the branches are all close together going skyward, the fruit doesn’t get much sunlight. By encouraging the tree to branch outward, more fruit can get sunlight. Beyond this technical reason, apple trees also have incredible elegance when they have been well pruned. Pruning brings out their inherent beauty.

I have learned much about gardening from watching other gardeners. I had the great good fortune to watch and learn from a wonderful pruner. After our small orchard had meandered along in my confused care for several years, a master pruner named Lauren Sherman arrived to give me a much needed inservice. She also did some much needed remedial work on all our fruit trees. By the time she arrived, I had added plums, peaches, more pears, and a sour cherry to our small orchard, but I was listening better to the Angels and knew enough to get cross pollinators for the plums. The cherries and peaches are self pollinating so it was okay for me to get a solitary cherry and four of the same peach variety. Lauren worked her way around the whole collection. I followed, watching her every cut.

Lauren in action was a joy to behold. An hour in Lauren’s hands and a scraggly tree would reveal its beautiful bones. Lauren explained an obvious point. A tree’s branches must be within reach either from the ground or from a ladder or no one can harvest its fruit. She taught me how to properly take off the top of the tree so every branch is accessible. I also learned how to cut out crossing branches and branches growing inward, and how to cut a branch right above an outward facing bud to encourage outward growth. Over the years these techniques have transformed our trees. That and a lot of standing around asking the trees’ advice and asking myself WWLD (What Would Lauren Do)?

Before Lauren, I was a timid pruner. Originally the seven acre field where we set our house had no trees in it. Our hedgerow and lower acres had trees, but every other tree is here because we planted it. Given this paucity of trees, it was initially very hard for me to part with a single branch, let alone take off hundreds of branches. I also was afraid any bold action on my part would hurt the trees. I didn’t really understand the necessity of extensive, even radical, pruning until Lauren. I hadn’t really understood until then that the reason why my childhood apple trees did so well was because some human had forced them into a shape that would work for fruit production. It hadn’t just happened all on its own.

A garden isn’t something that plants create alone. A garden is a meeting place where plants cross pollinate with the imagination, purposes, and actions of people. Apple names reflect this. A name like Westfield Seek no Further tells a story of a good cross pollination between nature and humans in an orchard somewhere, maybe Westfield. A fruit tree will be one thing if left to run wild and another thing entirely if hybridized by a knowledgeable arborist, grown with love, and pruned by a wise pruner. This kind of cross pollination results in a situation where one would need to seek no further for a good apple.

But also, a garden has its own identity, separate from the plants and the humans, beyond the hopes and limitations of the humans and the plants. A gardener in alignment with the garden in her care will cut away everything that inhibits the expression of the garden’s essence, but also surrender to the great mystery that a garden has a destiny separate from its people or its plants.

The longer I am here at Green Hope Farm, the more certain I am that this place’s identity and purposes exist well beyond its present form or my work here. This is exhilarating and also humbling.

Good cross pollination between humans and nature is theoretically going to serve the greater identity of the garden. But maybe sometimes a breakdown in communication, problem pollination so to speak, also serves this greater identity. Like my non bearing apple trees. The ones I no longer know the names of so I cannot give them a pollinating partner. They are beautifully pruned now, but most of them still don’t bear fruit in the conventional sense of the phrase.

In this small instance, as in everything else, my job is to try and figure out what course of action is in alignment with this consciousness Green Hope Farm. Do I cut these trees down and start over with better information so as to get a good crop of apples? That would seem the logical choice. But maybe, in this instance, I must bow to a superior wisdom that used my lack of knowledge to bring in these particular eight apple trees for energetic reasons. We certainly know Green Hope Farm has purposes beyond the obvious of food production. Perhaps I must accept that my mistakes have been as important to this place as what my personality would call my better decisions. Perhaps these eight lone rangers do bear fruit, but I can’t see it.

As I consider this, it comforts me to think of our shipping mistakes. We make them. This is not the comforting news. The comforting news is that there often seems to be gifts in our mistakes. The wrong Essence we sent often seems to bring something none of us knew was needed when you ordered. We certainly try a) not to make mistakes and b) to fix mistakes when they happen by sending the Essence you originally ordered, but we are comforted by how often you tell us the mistake was the one you needed most. Once again, this is exhilarating and also humbling.

So for some reason Green Hope Farm needs these lovely lone rangers just the way they are. And me? For as long as I can climb a ladder and hold my felco pruners, I am going to happily prune these trees to help them bear fruit, apples or no apples.

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