Lauren R. Stevens: Pruning preserves apple trees' dignity


WILLIAMSTOWN — The plan was to plant two new apple trees to replace four ancient, overgrown ones, three of which were nonproductive. That was the plan — until last fall's exuberant harvest, in which all of those trees showered large, sweet apples. Two trees of yellow and two of red. I have no idea what variety.

So I spent several of those recent, warm January days pruning trees that, in spite of the rot and dying branches, proved themselves more than fruitful. No point in planting new trees when the ones I had overwhelmed me with their bounty. By "overwhelm" I mean bringing on groups of Williams College students to pick apples for Hopkins Forest Fall Festival cider making and to supply local food pantries.

My apples were like the zucchinis of days gone by, as I pressed them on relatives and friends, both in their natural state and as amended: gallons of applesauce; a half dozen pies. I still have a crate of the yellow. Even though I picked most of them off the ground, expecting that they would be too bruised to last, they seem to be holding up.

So, as I say, I'm pruning, not because I expect another harvest quite like last year's, but because it's a decent thing to treat these dowdy trees well. They want to be pruned.

The first step, cutting the highest branches, I've been involved in for the six years I've lived here. I've been trying to lower the trees, which still extend beyond what I can reach from my ladder. Those branches are too high to prune; the fruit is too high to pick.

The second step, which occupied me the most in January, is removing the water sprouts, those smooth-bark suckers that seem to burst out everywhere. Growth of sprouts robs energy from fruit production. I leave a few of those growing more or less horizontally where other branches are absent, as they will eventually grow into bearing branches. Still, I removes hundreds — and at that I can't reach the highest (see step one).

The third step is to remove branches that shade or cross other branches or keep sunlight from getting into the center of the tree; or that are weak because they grow at too steep an angle or that broke under the weight of last year's crop. This step requires judgment and more experience than I have. Still I want to do my best. As with lowering the tree, the rule is not to shock the tree by removing too much in any one year.

The trees' little joke is that the pruning stimulates the birth of suckers, as the tree tries to keep a balance between the branches and the roots. "The best time to prune is when the saw is sharp," they say. In a normal year, January is early; still, I want to prune before the buds come out.

With limbs, I try to undercut, so that when the branch comes off it doesn't tear the bark below. Try — but hanging on to the higher rungs of the ladder while reaching as far as I can with the saw, technique suffers.

The structure of these trees was established long before I was around, but I want to do my best to preserve the dignity they deserve. And perhaps they will express gratitude, weather and pollinating conditions cooperating, by honoring me — and the deer and assorted smaller animals — with apples next fall.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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