Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why The Mad Pruner Can't Get Me Now

Bing cherries. Who doesn't love them? Summer in the Northwest is paradise for cherry lovers. The Bing cherry was actually first hybridized here and named after Chinese orchard foreman Ah Bing in the 1870s on horticulturist Seth Lewelling's Oregon farm.

The Pacific Northwest is also home to the magnificent Rainier cherry, which was hybridized in 1952 at Washington State University. With its delicate skin and delicious flavor, it is a clear (and expensive) favorite of cherry lovers everywhere. It bruises very easily and must therefore be harvested completely by hand, and even then you'll have to put up with slight bruising on most Rainiers you find in the supermarket or roadside market. Don't worry, though--as long as the flesh is firm it will remain sweet.

Many people have a cherry tree or two in their garden. Often planted is the self-pollinating Stella, a very sweet cherry with a dark red color that looks a lot like a Bing. What this means is that it doesn't need another type of cherry around. Bees transfer pollen from the burgeoning anthers to the stigma, and then come July you have paradise in your own back yard.

Unless you are The Mad Pruner.

Cherries set fruit on year-old shoots and lateral spurs. This means two things: 1)very old wood will not set fruit; and 2) this year's growth will not set fruit. The Mad Pruner, however, wanted his cherry trees to look a certain way: kind of like a lollipop, with dense foliage. He went at his trees with a power saw, and sheared them evenly in all directions, and he did this every spring, just as the new leaves were beginning to unfurl.

The Mad Pruner's trees did not set fruit.

He cursed them. He told them that if they didn't produce any damn cherries this year, it was their last chance: he would rip them out. In a predictable series of events, they did not set fruit and he ripped them out. He showed those useless cherry trees.

It sounds ridiculous to tell the tale this way. It even felt ridiculous at the time, and it is hard for me to admit this, but with this man I couldn't seem to find a way to approach the subjects of how cherry trees work, and how fruit comes into being, and that an open vase shape with strong horizontal branching is optimal for the health of the tree and for fruit production. If I came anywhere near these subjects, his eyes glazed over: he didn't seem to want his idea of the perfect tree shape compromised by anything I might have to say about horticulture. To paraphrase my father: The Mad Pruner's mind was made up and he didn't want to be confused by the facts.

It broke my heart to see those poor trees tortured into submission and then punished for not producing cherries. I felt horrible that I had been unable to intervene on their behalf. But, of course, there was a larger lesson here.

What doesn't work with cherry trees also does not work with people. That's why The Mad Pruner is now a man I used to know.

In my own case, I was able to intervene. I got out before he completely uprooted me.

Photography: Rainier Cherries on Tree,; Stella Cherries,; Rainier Cherries, Gilbert W. Arias/Seattle P-I; Rainier Cherries, Washington State Fruit Commission; Bing Cherries, AGS/USDA

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