Hubris and humus – Lessons from the garden

Agriculture & Food, Being Human

After a day and a half of driving rain, which seemed very befitting once the mountains and forests were made dark by the thick cloud cover, the weather cleared up on Sunday afternoon so we went out to the garden to do some pruning, since it is the season.

We read up about it in all the books we have, and whilst they seem to mostly agree that there’s no ‘right’ way, they then go on to say their favoured approach, which means that a novice has nothing to choose ‘twixt them all; thus rather than agreeing there is ‘no right way’, there are instead as many ‘right’ ways as there are authors who express a preference.

So we read on to try to find a consensus, and this guide to pruning apple trees is as good a synthesis as there is. For convenience, after the first few years of growth it can be summarised thus:

How to Prune

Chop off 1/3rd of the stuff that has grown since last year. Make a clean cut just above the nearest bud.

That’s it. It’s not that hard, really, is it? But, by Pan and all the attendant forest deities, do they labour the point! A huge superfluity of detail, all of which seems to amount to precious little. Mind you, let’s see how much fruit we have this autumn…

But since the sap is low and the hubris is high, and the lesson in pruning was so short, let’s cover advanced pruning.

Advanced Pruning

A good fruit tree is goblet shaped, to wit, arcing branches forming a hollow ‘cup’. Cut back anything which distorts the goblet shape.

Which makes sense, really, and provides half the answer to the question we come to next.

What is the point of pruning?

  1. Maximum growing space, within easy reach: The “goblet rule” yields a tree in a shape which gives the maximum surface area within a reachable height, which in turn means plenty of fruit that you can pick before the wasps get it.
  2. Plenty of fruit: keep the plants pissed off and struggling, and pushing out more life to compensate for the assault.

I remembered I’d learned (and then forgotten) this same lesson last summer, growing vegetables in our polytunnel near Totnes. A plant grows leaves so it has energy to create flowers, which it then uses to propagate its genes. So if you pick just a few leaves from it, it thinks “Doh! Damned rabbits / slugs / predators! But ok it’s just a few leaves. I’ll grow a few more to get things back on track, and then I’ll get going on sexytime and make seeds and flowers.” If you pick too many it thinks “Ok this is shit. I’m clearly not going to make it here. I’m under-nourished. I’m ill. I die.” So you pick just a few to keep it keenly in sight of the goal, but then move the goal posts to get more and more out of it.

There’s another interesting thing I learned about plants last summer, too. If a plant grows in rich soil it grows more leaves than flowers – the more energy it can get through the leaves, the better flowers it can make. If a plant grows in poor soil it grows more flowers than leaves. This seems to genetically acknowledge that since it can’t move or do much to improve the soil around it, its best opportunity is to breed. I’m sure there’s a political poster opportunity in there somewhere.

Back to pruning. Pruning seems to be the same “keep ’em struggling” approach. Make the tree think things are just on the slightly troublesome side of good, and watch it pull out the stops. Like getting a ‘C’ at school, it’s a bit of a wake up call that you need to put in more effort. Actually that’s a light metaphor. Maybe more like being caned – if I’m going to go down the anthropomorphic line it needs to be a corporal punishment; but at the same time once which the recipient can easily tolerate and comes with the territory.

This is also very similar to the lessons the Fraggles taught us. I’d always wondered about the Dozers, being the happy drone workforce who in their simple ignorance just kept on churning out buildings – apparently for their own use – which the Fraggles would them come along and consume. In the naivety of my youth I thought this was skilfully crafted to enculture a new generation of Americans with a sense of neo-Emperialist consumption rights (perhaps to compensate for the pinko-liberal melting-pot theories pedaled by Big Bird), or acclimatise them to a new relationship with China, all those happy little yellow-hatted zen workers.

But I digress. Wildly. I should probably add that all the gardening stuff may well be wrong, too. It is, as you can tell, a series of largely anthropomorphic models wantonly extrapolated from minimal quantities of fact, currently undergoing a year of unscientific field trials.

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons

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