What struck me most about Scott Nearing was his sturdy appearance, arms hanging loosely from broad shoulders, his near perfect teeth, and the deeply creviced wrinkles of his face. He was 91 years old. Looks aside, his influence on me was deep despite the brevity of my visit.Scott Nearing was a professor of economics, a political activist, a pacifist, a vegetarian and an advocate of simple living. And a gardener. For many of these reasons, he was almost a cult figure back in the 1970s when I, a young man, visited him. He was then known mostly for his book Living the Good Life. I had read the book, and decided to drive 1,000 miles from Madison, Wisconsin to show up on his farm, unannounced, in Harborside, Maine.
I thought of that visit today as I was swinging my scythe. Would I have been out in the field this morning …
Mundane as she may be, I love yew (not mispelled, but the common name for Taxus species, incidentally vocalized just like “you”). Hardy, green year ‘round, long-lived, and available in many shapes and sizes, what’s not to love? Perhaps that it’s so commonly planted, pruned in dot-dash designs to grace the foundations in front of so many homes.
Still, I love her. For one thing, Robin Hood’s bow was fashioned from a yew branch (English yew, T. baccata, in this case). Two other species — Pacific yew (T. brevifolia) and Canadian yew (T. canadensis) — are sources of taxol, and anti-cancer drug.
At a very young age, I became intimate with yew bushes surrounding our home’s front stoop, on which my brother and I would often play. Yew’s red berries, with an exposed dark seed in each of their centers, would give the effect of being stared at by so many …
Why am I spending so much time pruning these days? To keep plants manageable and healthy, of course. But also so that flowering and fruiting trees, shrubs, and vines keep on flowering and fruiting. “Renewal pruning” is what does this.
Pruning apple spur
As plant stems age, they — like all living things — become decrepit, no longer able to perform well. But any plant’s show or productivity can be kept up if stems that are too old are periodically lopped back, which promotes growth of new, young, fecund stems. That’s all there is to renewal pruning.
Ah, but the devil is in the details. One important detail is how old is “too old.” That depends on the flowering and fruiting habit of the plant.
Near one extreme would be pear trees. Along pear stems grow stubby growths, called “spurs,” which bear the tree’s flowers and fruits.
I remember a few years ago of having a most fruitful — and I mean this very literally — experience visiting one of the USDA’s germplasm repositories. “Germplasm repository” doesn’t sound like the kind of place anyone would want to be, but these USDA repositories are, in fact, sunny, colorful places, often redolent with enticing aromas. In the case of the one I visited, the aroma was of ripening apples.
Germplasm is the stuff that gives rise to an organism, and the USDA has set up repositories around the country to house various kinds of plants. Each repository is situated where a particular group of plants grows well. So Davis, California is home to the repository for figs, pomegranates, and Asian persimmons; Corvallis, Oregon is the repository for pears, gooseberries, and mint; and Geneva, New York, where I visited, houses the collections of apples and …
Today I put the finishing touches on pruning my grapevines. Yes, it’s late: The buds have already swollen and expanded into clusters of small leaves. But there’s “method in my madness,” or, at least, my tardiness.
My vines often experience some winter damage, some varieties — New York Muscat, Reliance, and Vanessa, for instance — more than others. Waiting to prune until I see some green saves me from cutting off too many living canes and saving too many dead canes. In winter it’s not so easy to tell them apart.
So I do mostly rough pruning in winter, lopping back canes that have to go whether they’re living or dead. Canes also need to be shortened, even those that are to be eventually saved.
Which brings me to another reason I left the final pruning until today. Plants generally make their earliest growth in …
Following last week’s missive about pruning fruiting shrubs, I now move on to pruning my fruiting trees. Again, this is “dormant pruning.” Yes, even though the trees’ flower buds are about to burst or have already done so, their response will still, for a while longer, be that to dormant pruning.I mentioned flower buds, so these plants I’m pruning are mature, bearing plants. The objectives and, hence, pruning of a young tree are another ball game. As is renovative pruning, which is the pruning of long-neglected trees.
Most fruit trees need to be pruned (correctly) every year. Annual pruning keeps these trees healthy and keeps fruit within reach. This pruning also promotes year after year of good harvests (some fruit trees gravitate toward alternating years of feast and famine) and — most important — makes for the most luscious fruits.
Most of the pruning I do is “dormant pruning,” that is, pruning while plants are leafless. A few weeks ago, pruning was a relaxed affair with still-cold temperatures keeping the buds only slowly swelling in anticipation of upcoming growth. Then a few warm days kicked them into gear, making pruning more hectic.
Hecticness is little problem with those plants that are the easiest to prune because the work can be quick; other plants require my standing back with arms folded for some study before every few cuts.
Here on my farmden, easiest to prune plants include mature ornamental trees, shrubs, and vines, and even some fruits. Those fruits are American persimmon, pawpaw, and mulberry. They’re so easy because they can get by with little or no pruning.
Mostly what I do with the three fruit trees, every year or so, is to take a lopper or a …
In past years, now is when we would always hope to make enough maple syrup to last until the following year at about this time. Maple syrup consumption has dropped dramatically, leaving me with quite a backlog of the stuff. So trees haven’t been tapped for the past few years.
Not that we ever made that much maple syrup. Four tapped trees always produced sufficient sap for a year’s worth of syrup. It had to, because that’s how many spiles (taps) and buckets we own.
Our operation was nothing like what I came upon a couple of weeks ago cross-country skiing in the woods of northern Vermont. All of a sudden tubes had appeared in the pristine, white wilderness. Tubes everywhere! Baby blue plastic tubes, black plastic tubes, interlocking connectors, everything neatly wired into position at chest height and thoughtfully out of …
What gardener doesn’t need to prune some thing at some time? In many cases, a thumbnail suffices, as when pinching out the growing tip of a marigold or basil plant to make it grow more bushy. Or pinching off the soft green tip of a young apple shoot to temporarily stall its growth and let the leader, destined (by you) to be the future trunk and main limb, to remain top dog. Your thumbnail, though, isn’t always sufficiently long to use as a pruning tool, or else stems have toughened up beyond your thumbnail’s capabilities.
When more than your thumbnail is needed, there are many pruning tools from which to choose. If you’re going to own but one pruning tool, that tool should probably be a pair of hand shears, which are useful for cutting stems up to about 1/2” across.
So I visited my brother and his family for Thanksgiving. As usual, we walked around his yard to look at his plantings. As usual, he asked my advice, this time about pruning. (As usual, he didn’t want to consult a copy of my book, The Pruning Book, which I had given him a few years ago. “Why read it, when I can just ask you?!” he says.)
He was considering taking blades to a row of handsome, evergreen shrubs along the front of his house. Over the years, the lengthening branches had sprawled out to encroach upon the bordering lawn, in some places leaving exposed bare stems. He questioned whether new growth would sprout if he lopped all those sprawling stems back to near the roots.
But what was the plant? I had an excuse, admittedly rather lame, …