It’s late winter, and the pruning season is upon us. I enjoy pruning. It is as close to sculpting as many of us get in adult life. Except, that pruning is collaborative. One reaches a good result, only when working with the tree’s own inclinations. And the results play out, and change, over the years.

The first year that the pioneers of our small orchard were in the ground, they were victimized by a visit from the deer. A cherry farmer friend of ours told us to pull them all out. “They’ll never recover,” he warned me. I agonized over it, but finally decided to save the trees–and address their injuries through pruning. You can tell. The trees aren’t perfect. Several of them have a bit of a wobble in their lower limbs. I think of it as character. At six years, those trees are now teenagers–and beginning to bear fruit. Nothing could be more delicious.

We also have a couple of “ancient” apple trees. When my ex and I first bought the property, decades ago, we dropped in a couple of trees from a local nursery. We didn’t know then about the poor soils, or about careful tree selection. These trees received no water, or love, or care. We did cage them to protect from the deer, but even the cages have caused injuries. It’s a wonder they survived. I’ve spent the last six years rehabilitating them, carefully shaping them around old injuries and neglect. When they bear, the fruit is incredible–but it’ll be a little bit more coaxing before I can call them fully recovered.

Ours is a dooryard orchard. That is, a small orchard near the house, for personal use. It has several kinds of fruit trees–apple, pear and plum. The trees are selected for northern hardiness, disease resistance, pollinating partners, harvest timing, and flavor. When things fully mature, we should have a continual harvest from July through November. Because there are different kinds of trees, and even different varieties–they do not have the crisp, military uniformity of a commercial orchard. The first few years were really ragged looking. Our neighbors shook their heads. But now, the ugly duckling orchard is coming into its own.

This is the first year that it still looked like an orchard, even after pruning. Keeping the mantra of orchard pruning in the back of my head (“remove dead wood and crossed branches, prune for lateral growth, layer for light and air, cut back a third of the new growth, and prune to a bud directed toward where the tree should go,”), the trees always looked too little after pruning. This year, they’re shorter…but still look like trees. It’s all about patience. There are a few babies, still, late additions to the tribe. A year or so ago, I added some ‘exotics,’ a seckel dessert pear (Napoleon’s favorite), a crab apple (pollinating insurance), and an Arkansas Black apple…just because I wanted it. I think we’re done with new trees, at least if we want to stay inside the fence.

Doing okay after an early wobble

Over the winter, some deer broke into the fenced orchard again, and nibbled on the trees. But now, most of the trees are big enough that the damage was minimal. I almost have to compliment some of the deers’ efforts…they nibbled right to where I’d have pruned…but they could’ve left cleaner cuts! This spring Rick will fortify the fencing. Hopefully, we’ll be the ones making the pruning decisions in the future. In any event, they’re trees now, and they’ll be fine.

Maybe, at some point in the future, I’ll experiment with grafting, which is a pruner’s ultimate conceit.