Habits of Growth and Productivity - Journal of an Orchardist

Posted by Clair Kauffman on 19th Feb 2020

Habits of Growth and Productivity - Journal of an Orchardist

A year ago, Clair Kauffman, our orchard manager, shared some insights regarding work in a fruit orchard. His comments (below and here) sprung from the work they were doing with a section of Nittany apple trees. They were proving to be “unruly and unproductive.” To discover how things have progressed since then, read on...

Addendum -- 1/16/20:

Once again, the orchard lies dormant, the trees sleeping contentedly after a long season of hard work. The orchard crew is busy with the lengthy winter task of dormant pruning. Pruning a tree is like time travel. The tree plainly tells stories of growth and productivity from the past. Where and how much it grew in the past year. Branches bent low or even broken from bearing the weight of fruit. Surgical scarification where a caretaker took drastic measures in an attempt to save a tree from a systemic and potentially fatal disease, fruit buds already formed where conditions were perfect for the little beginnings of next season’s crop. The orchardist also travels into the future, imagining what shape the tree will take in the coming years. Where should he prune to avoid a dark and shadowy canopy, to stimulate regrowth at just the right place, to make space for novice branches to flourish, to reduce competition with the central leader, to redirect the flow of energy to where it’s really needed, or to compensate for the future bending of branches heavy laden with fruit?

In Part 1, I explained how our our Nittany trees were proving unruly and unproductive. They seemed determined to reach for the sky and not so keen on growing a fruitful branch structure. So in the following winters, the trees were pruned strategically to tame their energy and redirect it toward a fruitful end. That meant more severe than usual pruning -- painful but necessary. The expert (Ken) pruned the trees again several weeks ago. It looks like the trees are finally “calming down” (the language we use to describe a tree that is shifting from fast and profuse vertical vegetative growth and settling into the work of producing fruit). When I took a stroll through the orchard this week, I observed a nice amount of fruit buds for 2020 and a much better branch structure than in 2018. I also noticed the severity of the pruning and it's positive outcome of more fruitful tree form. While our pruning efforts are turning out to be a success, we’ve lost a couple years of early production due to the trees’ preference to put their energy into vegetative growth. Wisdom from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount still rings true, “You will know them by their fruit.”

“The spiritual journey is an endless process of engaging life as it is, stripping away our illusions about ourselves, our world, and the relationship of the two, moving closer to reality as we do.” -- Parker Palmer

From Clair Kauffman’s Journal (1/12/19) - Orchard Manager

Winter in the orchard is a time for the fruit farmer to observe tree growth from the previous season. The icy winter chill has chased much of the trees’ vitality into the hidden root zone, leaving naked and leafless trees. To an untrained eye, all that’s left is a wall of boring, drab-colored branches.

But even in a state of dormancy, the trees I care for are telling me something by their now obvious branch structure and the past season’s growth. Pause with me, and listen to their quiet story.

Recently, I pruned our 3 year old Nittany apple trees. In 2017, they were probably the fastest growing trees in the orchard and have a plethora of upright, fast-growing branches. While it’s exciting to see such robust growth, it’s kind of like untempered youthful ambition. Ideally, the vertical central leader (main trunk) grows quickly to a mature height forming an axis and structure for the horizontal, slower-growing, fruit-bearing branches. In fruit trees, this physiological disposition of vertical branches to grow faster and stronger is known as “apical dominance.” A branch with apical dominance generally has less or little reproductive physiology. A tree that has multiple leaders clamoring to dominate the apex, a lot of vertical growth, and sparse horizontal branching can become a fruit farmer’s nightmare. It can quickly overgrow it’s space in the orchard; fail to form ample fruit buds; make for extra pruning labor; rob light, water and nutrients from fruit-bearing branches; and trade precious productivity for showy vegetation. The orchard version of kitchen wisdom should be something like “Too many central leaders spoil the apple tree.” In contrast, trees whose secondary branches grow off the vertical axis at a more horizontal orientation induce the formation of fruit buds and become quite productive with higher quality fruit. The branches grow much more slowly and provide ample opportunity for the annual pruning to maintain ideal branch structure. 

So these young Nittany trees are presenting a bit of a problem. But don’t get me wrong. I love Nittany apples and even ate one yesterday after a quick stroll through cold storage. It had superb flavor, to say the least. The trees are still young and I think the trees can be guided in the right direction. It’s going to take some severe and painful pruning, though, and we’ll head back out later to literally bend some of the remaining branches down to a more desirable orientation.

In all this lies a tremendous metaphor. Personal growth and productivity can take many forms, but the most fruitful change a person can undergo is slow and humbling work. And it is hard, very hard. Much of it can never really be told. All who walk this path discover a strong inner resistance to growth of this nature -- the humble and painful bowing of the head on a slow and unnoticed path of descent to greatness, to become what was intended for humans to be. Nevertheless, pure and life-giving fruit begins to emerge as we desert the fast track to personal growth, embrace the unseen, give up our efforts to ascend and dominate the apex, and let go of the illusion that our super-egos claim as true -- that we are the sum of what people think we are. If that wizened elder is patient, know that it was learned through the devastating failures of impatience. If they are loving, it was born of first-hand experience with hatred and contempt. If they are truly gentle, they once suffered the consequence of their own or others’ unrelenting harshness. If they are humble, they know the loneliness and emptiness of arrogance. Wisdom from the prophet Isaiah says that strength comes from quietness and trust, salvation from repentance and rest. Jesus of Nazareth said that the greatest is the humbled, the one who serves.

To some, I’m in the “prime of life,” an expression that implies that usefulness and fruitfulness is getting smart and noticeable things done. In reality, we rarely get to experience any significant overlap of energy and wisdom. Like those silly Nittany trees, I resist the true path to fruitfulness and greatness, frantically grasping for the endless metrics of success. In the winters and wildernesses of life, with the “leaves” no longer hiding my little known insecurities, false starts, and failures, I am invited to humbly flex to the hiddenness of slow and internal transformation, to be honest about the actual fruits of my life, and to accept the counter-intuitive path to fruitfulness. I am called to a vital connection to Christ, the central branch, the central leader - the ultimate servant who repeatedly taught and modeled true, live-giving greatness.

Photos: Kauffman’s Orchards