Permaculture (Lazy) Pruning Tips

The maple sap is running. The skies are blue. There is a warm breeze. The snow is… mostly evaporating, actually. Or sublimating is probably the more correct term. There are rodents chasing each other through the pines, and the birds are loud even at midday. Crows seem to have much to say today; the wren is full of vitriol as usual; the resident male cardinal is preening in the forsythia. Ah spring, when an old woman’s fancy turns to… pruning.

Fancy is perhaps too strong a word. I do not fancy this task. This is an important point to make at the outset. I do not like pruning. I’m not even sure it does the good the rest of the orcharding world seems to think it does. Yes, it produces more fruit per tree. But I don’t need more fruit than the tree gives me of its own accord. And those contorted forms and the near complete lack of old pruned trees suggests a distinct lack of health. Yes, I have my dark suspicions about pruning, but mostly I just don’t like doing it.

So it will surprise nobody when I report that I do not do it much. However, this is not merely because I dislike the task; it also fits with my garden philosophy. I am quite certain the garden can look after itself. Gardens, like most webs of living things, are self-regulating. I think the garden functions best when it is allowed to be its uncontrolled self, as close to “wild” as I can tolerate in my backyard. I consider my role to be the garden monitor, maybe even just an observer with fringe benefits. I am not in charge of anything that goes on out there; I just make sure nothing bad is happening. And by bad, I mean for the garden first, for me second. It usually works out that what benefits the garden also benefits me.

My tasks are to plant things that the rest of the garden inhabitants appreciate. Flowers for nectar feeders; legumes for soil building; trees for just about every need from food and housing to shade and wind screening. I am the hayward; I beat the bounds and chuck the wanderers back where they belong. I am also in charge of all those irritating early colonizers who will take advantage of any slight disturbance in the force to overrun all other living beings. I am Bittersweet Eradicator in Chief and Squash Bug Squisher Prime. I dump all the Japanese beetles in buckets of soapy water and rip up the bracken that is marching into the perennial beds. I keep the annuals dead-headed to reduce seed spread. At the end of the growing season, I pull out the annuals, cut back the perennials and clip many of the bushy things. This is as close as I come to overt management. 

Every year, I consider the received wisdom of orchard maintenance. I’m supposed to be out there with secateurs and a hack saw, cutting out excess branches. But I don’t feel qualified to judge excess. If the tree grew those branches, I suspect on average those branches are needed. I usually trim out any water sprouts, but I find that when I don’t prune much these unhealthy suckers rarely form. This tells me that pruning makes a tree unhappy, so unhappy it puts energy into growing something that does not benefit itself. Mostly I set aside the received wisdom and let things be.

I call this lackadaisical approach to the garden “permaculture”, though most actual permaculturists wouldn’t recognize it as such. There’s nary a swale on my property — though I do like hügelkulture! — and I’m not overly concerned with fussy design. However, I do insist on everybody out there pulling extra shifts. In permaculture proper this is expressed in terms of functions. All design elements serve multiple functions, and there is usually a vertical stacking to elements. For example, the cherry tree gives shade to the primroses, stabilizes the soil, gives off intoxicating scent that attracts beneficial insects from miles around, allows the clematis to climb its trunk, and of course makes cherries — which largely go to the birds, but I get enough to make jam and pie and a lovely cordial. Not every plant out there is so versatile and the porch steps are just the porch steps, but most things do fill more than one niche.

The other permaculture principle that I follow is a preference for perennials and woody plants over annuals. And the annuals I do grow — because there must be chiles and squash — I wedge in between the perennials. I minimize digging so that I minimize soil disturbance. Now, I know many of us like to garden primarily because we can dig, but the soil critters don’t like it. Well, of course, they don’t! Some great lummox churning up their homes and bodies, turning everything upside-down and inside-out. Soil develops where there isn’t disturbance. So I let soil do its thing and everybody in the garden is happier for that.

The greatest attraction about permaculture is that it results in a garden that needs very little from the gardener, gardening for the indolent. Or maybe languorous is a nicer term. I can wander through the herb bed and snip off a pot’s worth of tea leaf, pull a couple carrots for dinner, cut a bouquet of roses and dill, and lose myself watching all the life dance around me. It’s undemanding and yet connected to me. We are interdependent, the garden and I, and neither of us is particularly needy. We are both alive and doing what we do best.

So I don’t like the idea of pruning. I’m forcing my ideas of fruit production and growth habit on the apple tree, when it is quite capable of producing abundantly in the form it chooses — which is almost always ideally suited to the tree’s location and resources. I think a permaculture version of orcharding lets the trees be trees. Make sure the invasive nasties stay out, cull any sick branches, occasionally give it extra water or compost — and that’s about it. Apart from eating the apples, of course!

And for the record, I get abundant harvests from my trees every year. 

So it’s time to prune… but I think I’ll just go sit out there and watch the buds swell. Tree and I, we both will enjoy that, I think.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021