Twigs

I have been pruning the fruit trees in the gardens, both the desert apples espaliered along the walls in the old garden, and the cookers in the Orchard.

The espaliers are well established, with sturdy horizontal leaders and lots of spurs showing fruiting buds. I must prune back the side shoots to encourage fruiting on strong growth. But all three apple trees have also developed strong vertical leaders—and I have just learned that these high, axial, shoots inhibit growth lower down, eventually dominating the tree. While I feel sad to cut away such strong branches, I must do so to encourage a balanced shape.

The three cooking apple trees in the orchard have been neglected for several years. They show an untidy tangle of growth with is a lot of dead wood and many overlapping branches. Brambles and Old Man’s Beard have smothered them; overgrown ash trees in the hedge have overshadowed them. Seeking the light, they have sent out long slender shoots. One of the trees, which was planted against the high north wall, has developed a southward leaning habit which looks very awkward.

I take my sharp saw and pruners to all three trees. To start with, I am a little anxious. Where to start? Which branches have overgrown and need to be taken out? How far back should I cut the long shoots? Should I prune dramatically in one season, or more cautiously over two or three?  I start by making the obvious cuts: this branch is dead, this one crosses that, another sticks out at the height of a human eye.  Gradually a shape emerges and I get more confident: these branches that have arched over the top of the tree in search of sunlight have to be cut right back; this vertical trunk dominates the tree’s growth, so it must come out to open up the centre of the tree.  Standing back, I can see more branches that overlap, and realize that I have not been radical enough in cutting back long shoots, and so return to my work.

By the time I have finished I have pruned them quite dramatically: the trees are open, well balanced, and compact. I am surprised to see how many branches and twigs lie on the ground when I have finished. It takes quite a while to go around and collect them all, making several piles of kindling along the way. It will soon be time for another bonfire.

Pruning the trees sets me thinking again about the relationship between humans and the more-than-human-world. In Wildwood, Roger Deakin tells how, in ancient times, apple pips, fruit and cuttings were transported from their origins in the Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan, along the Silk Road to the west. Favoured trees have been selected and grafted onto root stock since the time of Alexander the Great. Our apple trees are the cultivar Bramley’s Seedling, which was raised from seed in a cottage garden in the early nineteenth century by a young lady gardener, Mary Ann Brailsford, named after Matthew Bramley who bought the cottage, and introduced to market by Henry Merryweather in 1876. My individual trees were grafted onto rootstock, chosen and bought, transplanted in the garden, tended, neglected, and now, I hope, can flourish again.

This history of human engagement shows that these trees are not ‘pure nature’: they are hybrids, part of what the sociologist Bruno Latour calls the ‘seamless fabric’ of nature and culture. Together, in relationship between climate and soil, qualities of seed and rootstock, and British culture—the tastes, technologies and economics of horticulture and culinary habits—the cultivar we call ‘Bramley’s Seedling’ has emerged. Then, the shape, health and productivity of my particular trees develop in the interaction between the micro-climate of the walled garden, the inherent patterns of growth of the tree and my skill and choices as a pruner.

In this view, all phenomena arise as hybrids. As I discovered on my voyage to the west coast of Ireland, even the wild ocean is not a ‘pure wilderness’: our voyaging is mediated by charts and buoys, by old and new techniques of pilotage and navigation, by the qualities of our boats and equipment, by our beliefs and attitudes and by the stories we tell.

I have brought some of the twigs into the house and put them in a vase with water. They look kind of Zen, a sparse arrangement of grey brown twigs, hints of lichen in places, shiny bark in others. From the tips of the spurs little red buds are just showing, pushing their way out of the protective winter covering. These are, I think, the flowering buds; along the stem are smaller, leaf buds. I wonder if they will come out in the warmth of the house? We will see.

Deakin, R. (2007). Wildwood: A journey through trees. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Latour, B. (1993). We have Never Been Modern (C. Porter, Trans.): Hemel Hempsted: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Sanders, R. (2010). The Apple Book. London: Frances Lincoln.