This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
Dear Sir - Before closing these numbers by a few short comments upon the several processes of pruning, listed under the head of the second class, I have determined to make a few desultory remarks touching those external evidences, which, in practice, the operator should recognise as indications suggestive of a particular process in its class above others, or as symptoms, which, as violent or gentle in character, are more or less abiding, of delay in the application of the knife.
However much the success of the unskilful and of the negligent, may seem at war with such a proposition, still I hold it to be true, that every stroke of the knife, every rubbing off of a leaf or bud, exerts its influence for evil or for good, and that he who prunes without object, or who, attempting to accomplish some design, is not assured that the cut he is making will accomplish such design, is employed in an exercise quite as likely to result in mischief, as in advantage. French philosophy and French skill, have brought a knowledge of those rules of practice to a high degree of advancement, in so much that many of their specimen trees, viewed as artistic productions, excite the admiration of all beholders. It is a source of surprise to witness with what passive obedience they submit to be moulded into form, by the will of the trainer, and how, at the same time, the operator can exercise such rigid constraint over the form of his trees, and yet preserve their general health.
Here, however, is a fundamental rule of the French school, endorsed by high Anglo-Saxon authority, which if not a paradox, is certainly to be received as true in a much more limited sense than that set forth in the books - it is this, that " in all trees, and under whatsoever form, the branches of the most vigorous parts should be cut short, and those of the weak parts long," in order that the greater surface of leaves produced by the numerous buds of the weaker branches may attract more sap, and thus produce a more vigorous growth! This, it will be perceived from the reasoning, is a winter or spring operation. In about the year 1840,1 recollect seeing a lot of pear trees headed back - whilst at the same time their roots were treated with a dressing of manure well spaded in. This treatment was applied as a remedy for feebleness of habit, the result of over production, and at the end of five or six years the amputated trees had grown larger than when headed back. One of them, a Red Bergamot, had, indeed, become barren from over luxuriance; here and there, only a branch was seen, sufficiently fruitful, so that here, if ever, one would have thought, was a case for the application of this French rule.
Abundant space around several of these branches, was formed by cutting out the neighboring parts, and the whole system of buds left to the feeble branches, with free space for enlargement. At the end of two years, however, the bearing branches remained stationary, whilst the vacated space was re-filled with shoots more nursery-like and unproductive than those removed. I believe, as has been stated in a former number, that whenever fruit-buds have acquired control of the sap, by seizing upon the extremities, which are commanding points in the system of circulation, that shortening-in is the only means of restoring the wood system to active development - and that in this case, and at this season of the year, which is the season of rest, the proper remedies were shortening-in for the feeble branches, and bending down for the too vigorous. For the same reason, that is, its tendency to cripple the energies of the wood system, I cannot but dissent from the implied doctrine of the books, that bearing its crops " principally at the extremities of the branches" is one of the healthy habits of the fruit tree.
Without attempting a scientific classification, I think trees and plants cultivated for their fruits, would admit of a rude division into three classes, yiz: First, those which develop the bloom with or without an attendant system of leaves, before the bursting and growth of the wood-buds. Second, those performing the wood growth of the season before the development and expansion of the bloom, and third, those bearing fruit upon branches of the current year, which branches continue to elongate after the bloom has been developed. The Quince and the Orange are examples of the second clacs. In these cases it would seem but maternal kindness on the part of nature, to instal these fruitlets into the most favorable position, having to contend, as they do, for subsistence, even in infancy, with the fully developed leaves of the wood system. In these instances, however, in which nature herself dispossesses the wood system, she restores the possession on the ripening of the fruit, by a sort of shortening-in. In the first class, embracing the apple, pear, and many others, there exists no adequate necessity for giving to the fruitlet the same " vantage ground." The fruits setting before the development of the leaves and branches of the wood system, they begin to draw upon the circulation for subsistence, and are not only capable of competing for a share of the sap, but in excessive crops entirely suspend the wood growth; again, it is hardly reasonable to infer that nature designed this as their normal position, since she has not provided for the contingency of keeping up a supply of wood in those parts, by restoring the extremities to the possession of the wood system at the end of each crop, as in case of the Quince. But, on the other hand, the apple, and some others, bear their fruit in terminal clusters, the center of which are buds, which buds will continue to point the extremity of the branches with additional fruit buds, until removed by accident or the knife, or until the branch itself shall perish from loss of wood.
In the third class, the Pecan and Chestnut, among trees, also the vine and melon among plants, might be enumerated. It is a well known fact, that the Pecan and Chestnut, under cultivation, produce abortive fruits for many years before they come into successful bearing, if the annual growth continue vigorous and luxuriant. So too, every body does, or may know, that if a single cluster each, of grapes, be permitted to grow upon two branches of equal vigor, upon any vine, and if one of those branches, being headed back to within one or two joints of the cluster, is kept free from suckers, whilst the other is left to grow at will, making a length of ten, fifteen, or even twenty feet, that at the season of maturity the long branch will have diminutive berries, some shriveled, some ripe, some green - whilst the amputated branch will bear a broad-shouldered cluster, with berries, each one of which has pressed his neighbor so sorely for space to expand, that all have lost their rotundity.
To me it seems hardly to admit of a doubt, that failure in both these cases is attributable to the power of the wood-bud system, in a state of active growth, to starve out infant fruits, over which it has the advantage in position, as it always has when located at the ends of the branches.
I think the following experiment will tend to show that when even annuals display similar habits, the same general laws prevail. Some years ago I witnessed an experiment of an amateur cultivator in growing the watermelon. Having made a very early planting upon a small square in a village garden, in consequence of inclement weather, but four plants vegetated. Somewhat resolute in temperament, and impatient of defeat, he determined to try by extra culture, and the appliance of all the expedients of the cultivator's art, to raise a crop from these plants, which were over twenty feet apart. The branches were constrained to take such directions as to cover the whole space, and in order to keep their vigor unimpaired until the whole space was covered, the fruit-hearing force was kept in abeyance hy removing the embryo fruitlets as soon as visible. The cultivator, however, soon discovered, that even within the comparatively placid waters through which the humble tiller of the soil passes in the voyage of life, a Scylla not unfrequently has its corresponding Charybdis; for the very means adopted to enable these plants to avoid a short coming of the ability to cover so much space, drove them into that habit of over-luxuriance which generally swallows up the fruit-bearing force.
Many of the leading branches attained the size of a man's thumb, and I recollect some roots exceeded thirteen feet in length, beside the filamentose spongiole, too delicate to be gotten up entire. It is the after treatment in this case, which I think suggestive of principle and instruction - which was, to prune the vines much after the fashion of the grape crop, removing unnecessary laterals, and after allowing only two fruits to the largest branches, to prune off the leading shoot a few joints beyond the last fruit, whilst the fruits were quite young. The result was, an average yield to each plant, of between thirty and thirty-five fruits, of fair size and good quality, a yield by many thought remarkable.
Appertaining to this third class, there is a "vexed question," about which a few suggestions may not be inappropriate, which is this - " what is the proper time for heading back these leading shoots, when the design of the operator is to benefit the fruit crop?"' According to some authorities, it would seem quite immaterial, since they direct amputation "when the branches become inconveniently long." Most authors fix upon a date subsequent to the " setting of the fruit," and but a single writer within the limits of my reading, has spoken of a date " anterior to the expansion of the bloom." It appears to me, if external symptoms are to be consulted by the operator for his guidance, that the degree of luxuriance indicated by the wood growth, during the first few days after the embryo fruits become visible, should be regarded as the measure, both of the necessity of amputation, and of the danger of delaying the process; and that in a case where the wood growth was so rapid as to form a branch eight to ten feet in length ere the expansion of the bloom, amputation delayed to that period, would be pregnant with greater danger to the fruit crop, than entire omission of the process in a case of feeble wood growth.
Louisville, Ky.March, 1852.