February Trees

At home in New Hampshire

On a certain February day, in a certain slant of light, I go out to prune my fruit trees. Orchards are carved in the dead of winter, I once read, and I’ve come to know it as true. I like a dark day for the chore, one where the clouds bump against the top branches and the sunlight hardly breaks through. It would make more sense, I suppose, to choose a sunny day for such a job, one that carried a hint of spring, but I prefer steel skies to gold, pewter to marigold. Besides, I prune not only for the health of the tree and for the following autumn’s yield, but also for the outline of the tree, the shape of the black boughs that, with any luck, will live long after me. My trees are teenagers, planted in one muddy spring seven years ago.

The trick, I recall as I walk toward the small orchard, is to see the tree. What does it want to be, who is it, where does it want to go? Sounds silly, but such calculations are useful. Trees need shape and discipline to be their best. A weedy tree, a tree that grows wherever it likes, however it likes, is a mushy, unruly thing. Each winter, I remind the trees of what I need from them. They, in turn, insist on their own way of growing. Biologists talk about entropy—nature’s desire to have things down, to rot and claim for the earth, or to run riot in wild profusions of growth—and an orchard is always a balance between that impulse and the cutting tools that bring it form.

My apple trees are mostly cold-hardy antique varieties, purchased from a nursery in upstate New York. Norloves, September Rubies, Valentines, Pattersons and Sunny Brooks. I have Cabot and Hudar pear trees, and Alderman and La Cresent plums. I purchased these varieties so they would stagger their fruiting; I also picked a few trees for baking purposes and jams. In spring, the trees sprout lovely white flowers in concert and draw foggy crowds of bees, thick bumblebees that bump and blindly chunk into the flowers, but now, in deep winter, the trees exist as black lines against a white landscape. Pipes of sap for a factory of apples, pears and plums.

It’s good work, and it warms me. It’s also surprisingly creative. There is no right or wrong, no schematic to follow, only judgment and esthetic appraisal. In every encounter—I know each tree as Quasimodo knew his bells—I try to strike a compromise between my eye and the tree’s potential. In an hour, I have a pile of garnet stems stacked in the center of the small orchard. I cut the suckers that want to grow straight up from the boughs, and the miniscule twigs that cling along the sides. I cut, step back, cut some more. Several times, I have to make big decisions: has this branch lost its way? Is it pointing down and adding little to the tree’s growth? The old adage governs me: you should be able to throw a cat through the tree. An unkind sentiment for cats, of course, but the point remains. Trees need air and room to grow. To cut away is to prosper—and there is probably a lesson in that, but by the end of the afternoon, I am too cold and raw for contemplation.

At sunset, I carry the clippings around to my porch and leave them there. I bring in a handful and put them in a water can, hoping they will force and bloom. They seldom perform as I would like. The rest I leave for the fireplace, where they will release the tidal smell of spring when they are consumed. All wood is sunshine imprisoned, but these red twigs, cut before they can flower, burn into red fuses of spring’s approach.

Categories: At Home in NH