The Will to Prune

It’s time to prune the fruit trees again. As our small orchard and I get older, I get bolder in my pruning. I know each tree well after twenty plus years together and I hear the unique music each tree wants to express better with each passing year. I also am braver about doing the cutting necessary to give voice to this song. I actually LIKE the pruning I used to feel was the scary stuff, the radical lopping off of big limbs.

A lot of the pruning process is practical. I need to rein in each tree’s growth because a limb out of human reach is a limb whose fruit can’t be picked. The trees in any orchard understand that in a cooperative effort with humans, pruning for harvest is going to drive the process.

But to me, the core of pruning is about helping each tree express its essential self. This self is something both wild yet also reflective of its desire to cooperate with humanity. Each tree in an orchard, even when the same variety as another tree, has its own unique energy. And as the years go by, I grow more confident and enthusiastic about pruning out what interferes with each tree’s expression of this energy. I understand that my pruning is necessary for the tree to be true to itself.

When I was about ten, I watched an ancient Japanese gardener prune a crab apple tree in my parent’s garden. The tree was a fairly unattractive ball before this man began his work. The pruning that it had previously experienced was just to keep it small enough for the space it inhabited. There had been little thought given to what the tree wanted to express.

After the japanese gardener was finished with his pruning, the voice of the tree was so clear. Each limb spoke a line of poetry that had not been visible before. This pruning showed me what heights could be reached when nature and man worked together. One tree could be a garden in an of itself and a wonderful one at that.

Often when I prune I think of this experience and wish I could see this scene unfold again. How I would love to see how each cut conveyed what this wise man knew about living and what he knew about how to release this tree to be its truest self.

But not to worry. I may not have this wise gardener at my side, but I have what is most important in this dynamic. I have the intention to help the tree express itself, I have an ever improving listening ear, and now that I am older and less afraid to make the cuts, I have the will to do what is called for.

Most of our fruit trees have gotten big enough and the listening work is complex enough that I usually only prune one tree in any session. As you know, I do most jobs with 19th century equipment so I have clippers, a small hand held saw, and a long pole with a rachet pruner on the end, but no chain saws. This makes the process slower than in a commercial orchard but for me this slow quiet pace is necessary. I do not know if I could hear the voice of each tree if I held a buzzing chain saw in my hand.

Before I start, I ask to be guided by the tree. And then I try to listen as I prune. At first, there are a lot of very easy cuts. The runners have to go. These are the branches that stand up straight from the tree, all new growth from the last season. They are easy to find and easy to cut.

In addition to cutting them off, I always work get the branches of each tree to grow further and further out along a near horizontal plane. I work to layer these horizontal planes so that the fruit on each branch gets a maximum amount of sunlight. Before recent hybridization, you could tell how much sun a peach got by how rosy it was. Now the rosiness is not always an indication of sunlight on the fruit. But in my small orchard, any rosy glow reflects the sun and the pruning.

To get the branches to spread out, I cut the outer branches right above a bud that points downwards and outwards so as the branches continue to grow, they grow on a bud that goes straight away from the tree. I also work to cut out branches that cross in conflict with other branches. Most of these cuts are obvious no brainers though sometimes it is hard to decide which crossed branch should remain and which should go. There is a bit of listening involved here.

When this obvious work is done, there is the big picture stuff. The big pruning of the bones of the tree. This is where pruning becomes a soulful art and why it takes decades of practice listening to trees to do what that japanese gardener did.

When one of you asks me for Flower Essence suggestions, I run the energy of the Flower Essences through my electrical system while contemplating you and your situation. This is more of a physical process than a mental one, but I think of it as an inner listening. I don’t know why, but I can feel when an Essence is right. This is what I do with the trees. When I am contemplating a big cut, I feel how the cut will affect the energy of the tree. I listen energetically. The right radical cuts move a lot of energy and release the tree into a greater expression of itself. The wrong cut can do a lot of energetic damage even if the tree comes back with more growth. The listening is important.

I wish I had taken a picture of the tree I worked on this past weekend before the cuts. I think the different energy before and after would have translated to the photos. After the easy pruning, I decided to make a very big cut. Right at the center of the tree, I felt a big section of branches needed to go. After cutting it from the tree, I could feel the tree breathe so very differently. It was a reminder that pruning in all of life is often hard but often right too.

I just went out to take this photo of the tree post pruning and this turns out to be quite an interesting photo because the nature spirit of the tree is visible in the photo- look to the center of the tree, straight up from the trunk about 2/3rds of the way up, then slide your eyes a bit right and you can see a sort of fuzzy area which is the nature spirit. They often appear in photos this way.

The spot where the nature spirit has revealed itself is near where the big cut happened. The large limb (see below) seemed to be crowding the insides of the tree. After it was removed, there was a feeling of release and also a feeling of the tree being more of the chalice it wanted to be. I find it wonderful that the nature spirit is visible inside the chalice of the tree.

On a more prosaic note, if you wondered what I meant by runners, you can see behind and above this tree on the left a lot of runners on the top of the next tree on my docket, a wonderful robust pear tree.


Here’s the big branch that got cut.

One more thing set to be pruned this week is Ben’s exuberant head of hair. He agreed to have his head shaved in an all school assembly if the kids at his school raised $10,000 for Haiti. The number was reached and tomorrow Ben will be shorn by one of his students. I am not sure it will be as contemplative a pruning as this apple tree received, but it certainly will be dramatic. I am in awe of Ben’s willingness to be pruned for this cause.


He has a bit of a crazy gleam in his eye here doesn’t he? Probably the last time we will see his head without a baseball cap for quite some time!

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