When I was a youngster, my Dad had a set of electric hair clippers. At a designated hour every month, my brothers and I would line up by a tall stool in the basement, and one by one, Dad would zip off our hair, clippers buzzing furiously.
As a barber, Dad had a sure-handed and confident technique, and we’d emerge from the basement with perfectly trimmed buzz cuts. Our closely cropped dos would be the envy of any young military recruit.
I am far less confident of the outcome as I approach Apple Trace at Restoration Farm on one of the last days of winter, preparing to prune the line of young apple trees for the very first time. The eight heritage apple trees were planted in memory of my father James M. Barritt, Jr. in the spring of 2012.
Restoration Farm’s resident fruit tree expert, Glenn Aldridge tells me the window for late winter pruning is once a year, and it is just about closed. The tree is dormant, and energy is stored in the root, so the pruning promotes new growth in the spring. Even at an early age, pruning is important to influence the future growth and shape of a tree. The goal of pruning is to expose the strongest branches of the tree to as much sun and air as possible.
I am skeptical. The trees look so fragile. They are barely twigs, so how will they withstand a pruning?
I’m not quite ready to make the first cut, so I stroll down a secluded path adjacent to the historic village to visit the old Hewlett Apple Orchard and see how the trees there have progressed. Exactly a year ago, we began pruning those long neglected trees, and Glenn has been working the orchard throughout the winter. Along the way, I am trailed by a small flock of Billy goats who follow me into the orchard.
At the Hewlett Apple Orchard, the trees appear to be thriving. None are the worse for the rigorous pruning we gave them last year. They look strong, healthy, well-shaped and ready for spring.
So, perhaps the fledgling trees of Apple Trace would hold up to a little pruning. After all, I survived the once-monthly trauma of a buzz cut. I return to Apple Trace with renewed determination.
In discussing “intuitive pruning,” orchardist Michael Phillips says, “Approach each tree with an introductory intake of the breath. This meditative pause is when you take in the tree’s framework and overall shape. How does it fit within the row? Are some branches too low? Is the leader beyond reach?”
I take a deep breath. I walk around each little tree and examine it carefully. Where are the odd, outlier branches? Where do the branches grow together in a pleasing conical shape? At last, I am ready to take the clippers in hand. I’ve convinced myself that pruning will be beneficial, and a path to renewal for these beloved trees.
As I examine each tree, and clip one branch at a time, I start to see the results. The trees look cleaner, streamlined and shapelier. Each is a different variety, and each has its own shape and character.
As I clip each branch, I collect the twigs. I’ll put them in a vase on the Easter dinner table as a reminder of Dad and his apple trees taking root at Restoration Farm. Someday, should the pruning pay off, perhaps I’ll make an apple tart with the fruit from Apple Trace.
As I bundle up the cuttings and prepare to leave, I notice a family of robins who have alighted on Chapel Field – a sure sign of the promise of the season ahead.
Happy Easter! Happy Spring!