Letters from the Garden: Planting Trees

Dear Sangha,

When we acquired the land that is now Ancestral Heart Temple, part of what we inherited was a mature fruit orchard that had been planted about fifteen or twenty years ago by the family who built the current house. Originally there was a mix of apples, pears, and peaches; however, over the intervening decades mostly only the apple trees and a thriving Asian pear have survived. Tending to orchards requires learning a different set of knowledge and skills than growing vegetables, and for the first year that I lived here I felt completely overwhelmed by it all and left the orchard to fend for itself. We had a huge amount of rain that summer and got a bumper crop of apples that year, so I called it a success. I confess, though, that when winter came I was too afraid to prune the trees myself, and so for better or for worse I just let them grow.

The second year, I had the capacity to learn a bit more about caring for fruit trees. As I started to pay closer attention to what was happening in the orchard, I began to understand that our trees were not only old, but quite overgrown and suffering from a number of common diseases and insect pressure. In reading more about tree care, it turns out that the single most important thing you can do to keep fruit trees happy and healthy is to prune them regularly and well. Creating an open branch structure allows for good circulation of air and light, creates a strong internal architecture that can support the weight of heavy fruit, and stimulates new growth to bear fruit in the future. Most fruit trees only flower and fruit on the parts of the branch that are at least one year old, so the art of pruning is literally shaping the future growth and fruit potential of the tree as you decide which branches will stay to grow and which will disappear. Over time, fruit trees will decrease in productivity if left unpruned, because old wood doesn’t fruit as vigorously as younger wood does.

Two of the apple trees in the orchard

Knowing a bit more about some of the basic rules for good pruning—beginning with the easy ones like removing dead, damaged, or diseased branches, as well as branches that grow directly upward, downward, or inward, and moving toward more complex decisions about the overall shape of the tree—I made some cautious overtures into pruning during the second winter. I spent several weeks that February making some tentative first cuts, and then getting more and more bold as I grew more comfortable with the process.

What I did not understand until I spent hours studying and falling in love with each tree was that to look at a tree is literally to see its entire history. Its particular shape in this moment is the result of every single thing that has happened to it, including every pruning cut, every big storm, every season of drought or good weather. I learned some general rules from a book, but the trees themselves taught me how to prune them by showing me how they responded to every previous cut by my unknown predecessors, by the pattern in which the branches wanted to grow. And each tree is different—apples and pears don’t have the same growth patterns; even each apple variety is not the same; and then each individual tree has its own structural strengths, weaknesses, and needs.

Pruning a tree is an incredibly intimate thing to do. I had been afraid of hurting the trees by making ignorant mistakes, but what I learned that winter was that the trees wanted to be pruned. The neglect was actually worse for them—not just my one year of ignoring them, but the whole previous decade of not being tended to. And they are actually quite forgiving of my slow learning process, because they keep growing, like hair does. Pruning is an act of care, not just for the trees, but for the humans who also benefit from the fruit they bear. By entering into such relationship with each tree, I became part of their life path, part of the conditions that shape them, as they became part of mine. Arborists talk about a well-pruned tree being “calm,” because its growth is channeled into healthy, strong, and boundaried paths, as opposed to a “reactive” tree that grows with too much energy in erratic, upward, or unproductive ways. I think people also like being pruned like this.

Above: apple blossoms; Below: pear blossoms

This past winter was my third, and I was able to return to the orchard and prune again for the second time, learning from the results of the past year’s efforts and building on them. My relationship to these trees has transformed from fear and shame to close friendship, like my kin. Now I come out all year to say hello, to see how they are doing, to hear the news about first leaves, about bees visiting, and about the summer storms. They are not “perfect” trees; most are gnarled and lop-sided, with awkward clusters of dense branches because someone long ago “headed” them without coming back to shape the growth that followed. But they are perfect in their as-they-areness, each living its unique and beautiful expression of precisely every moment up to now. There is no other way that they could be.

All of this is to say, at the bottom of this letter, that I am working on planting a new, second orchard this spring. There is not much room left inside the old one, and the trees there have diseases that I don’t want to spread to younger ones. The new spot is between the old orchard and the garden, with full sun, rich soil, and good drainage. I think fruit trees will be happy there. I have spent the last few weeks planting several baby apples, as well as a couple of nectarines, and two pawpaws. Next year I plan to add some more stone fruits, but I want to see how these do first. It is such a beautiful thing to plant a tiny sapling, investing it with all the hope and intention that it may grow into a huge tree in this exact spot, and that these trees and I will grow together and know each other, hopefully for decades.

Left: baby pawpaw tree, protected by a shade tent (they grow in the understory); Right: the new orchard in progress, just uphill from the garden

Palms together,