Life at Mucky Boots this spring is different in lots of ways than last spring. We aren't commuting 60-75 minutes over the Malahat to get to work every morning, for one thing. Last spring most things were on a keeping-our-heads-above-water basis, and as a consequence lots of jobs just didn't get done.
Like pruning, for example. We have a small orchard with 3 apple, 3 crab apple, 2 pear, 1 Asian pear, 4 peach, 3 plum and 3 cherry trees. In addition, we have about two dozen blueberry bushes, a 20 foot row of raspberry canes, and a couple of blackberry plants. All of which require pruning.
Last year we did a bare-bones job of pruning the two biggest oldest apple trees, some when it was supposed to get done (i.e. late winter) and some later, when we could get to it. The trees seemed to have forgiven us for not knowing what we were doing, because we got bumper crops from both trees.
This year, we are determined to do it right. What do two former teachers do when they have to learn something new? Read books, of course. So we assembled all the books in our library that had something to tell us about pruning fruit trees and berry bushes, and set to work.
It quickly became clear that pruning is complicated enough to merit a graduate degree. Pruning can be done to create or maintain a basic shape, to promote or inhibit growth, or to increase fruit yield or quality. There is winter pruning. There is summer pruning. Does the tree need a central leader or do better with an open, vase shape? It wasn't long before we felt a little overwhelmed. Normally when a job needs doing one of us or the other takes it on, but this time we decided two heads were better than one, and we'd do it together.
We decided to tackle it a fruit at a time, starting with the apple trees. We started with damaged and diseased branches. Off they went. Then we looked for branches crossing other branches. Off they went. Every time we made a cut we dunked the loppers in bleach water, to make sure no bug or disease was passed from one branch to another. And every time we flung a pruned branch away, Frankie leapt for it and wrestled it to the ground for a good chewing. He had a great time - he thought the whole exercise was for his benefit.
Once the big pruning was done, we turned our attention to the new growth from last year. All the cuts we made had to be planned so that the resulting lateral growth would be in the right direction - i.e. outwards and up, not inwards or down. With this in mind, we trimmed all the laterals and leaders back to between 3 and 6 buds and we were done.
We read somewhere that since the ideal shape for an apple tree is open in the middle, if you can throw your hat through the centre of the tree, you're in business. When we were finished we tried it with Kim's favourite straw hat, which Frankie then pounced on and demolished. So much for that trick.
The raspberries were much easier. Raspberries bear fruit on canes in their second year of growth, which means any canes that are older, and have already borne fruit, can be cut out. The same holds true for blackberry canes. Blueberries are similar - they bear on two or three year old wood, so older wood needs to be cut out to encourage new shoots to come up from the base.
So we're getting there. There's still a lot to do, and the weather has turned cool and rainy again after a wonderful week of sun and warmth, so it's not quite as much fun to be working outside. But we're feeling a bit more confident that we have a handle on at least the basics of pruning. And if there's one thing this new life is teaching me, it's that I shouldn't wait to feel entirely comfortable before I try something new. Some times you just have to trust that you have the general idea, jump in, and know that you'll get older and wiser as you go.