Last Morsel—Winter Apples

Photo by Jane Booth. Photograph made at Scott Farm, a Landmark Trust USA property.

Written By

Susan Futrell

Written on

December 01 , 2008

Pruning in winter is about learning to see what you can’t see. Buds still dormant. Leaves and branches yet to appear. Angles of sun and shadow that change daily. Invisible apples.

On a piercing blue-sky day last February, I followed Zeke Goodband, master orchardist at historic Scott Farm in Dummerston, as he walked among the apple trees that arched over the rolling hills of the orchard. I’ve asked him to teach me about pruning.

“Here you go.” Zeke holds out the pruner, a long pole with a clipper at one end, controlled by a stiff handle at the other. I’m not ready to have that kind of power over the shape of future branches and the color of future fruit, but I reach out and try to grasp it with confidence.

My first lesson: pruning isn’t about aesthetics, although the bare, gnarled branches of these trees against a painfully blue sky are exquisite—quiet, stark, and open. Pruning an apple tree is about giving it strength, allowing it light, and choosing where the energy of the tree will go—fruit, leaves, or branches.

Well-pruned trees are healthy trees. They produce more evenly from year to year. A proper cut allows sun to reach fruit that would otherwise be shaded and slow to develop its lovely blush and color. Trimming out branches that cross and crowd each other lets the main branches grow stronger and bear more fruit.

Zeke walks this entire orchard each winter with his big black dog, Henry, pruning every tree himself. Looking up into the branches as he talks, I begin to see—like a fuzzy picture gradually coming into focus—the direction of a bud, where two branches might crowd together, the shadow that leaves will make when the sun’s angle is higher.

“A certain number of typos are allowed,” Zeke offers by way of encouragement.

I fumble with the handle of the pruner, breathe, and make my first cut. The branch—it is barely more than a twig—drops through the tree to the ground. I slowly circle, staring hard at the scribble of branches. I won’t say I have become confident, but I make some bolder cuts here and there, and Zeke is kindly tolerant.

Light moves. Empty space is useful. Timid pruning isn’t very efficient. Wise cuts are a kindness. Don’t be attached—to the individual branch, to your idea of beauty, to the power of the sharp implement. Look at stark, bare branches against cold blue sky, and see next season’s perfect apple.

Photo by Jane Booth. Photograph made at Scott Farm, a Landmark Trust USA property. Orchard manager Ezekiel “Zeke” Goodband.

About the Author

Susan Futrell

Susan Futrell

Susan Futrell works for Red Tomato, a New-England-based non-profit that does marketing for a network of family-owned fruit and vegetable farms. She lives and writes from her home in Iowa.

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