Lessons in Pruning

The late winter is the season for pruning and it often corresponds to the Lenton season—a season of reshaping, in anticipation of the coming flush of life.  My thoughts wander toward other aspects of life for which pruning and the principles which one uses can be meaningful metaphors.    I’ll share a few of the pruning principles which might apply to our spiritual growth.  If they are of no other use, they are at least handy for pruning fruit trees.



1.      The purpose of pruning is to encourage the production of fruit. Without pruning, there will seldom be any fruit. A common wisdom is, “No pain, no gain.”  Haven’t we heard that in our spiritual life all our fancy words are not as important as the actions we take and the work we do.  It’s the fruit, stupid! 


2.      In pruning, one cuts or doesn’t with a context.  One sees in all life that living things will grow to the sun.  I always note the southern side of the tree—growth will tend toward that side.  Also growth will be most vigorous in the upper reaches.  I also note the direction of the prevailing winds and the slope.  All other things being equal, I leave more on the uphill side and the side into the wind than on the downhill and leeward sides, lest the tree fall over.  Likewise in our spiritual life, growth will occur toward the light—we can count on that.  If our life or habits are in need of change, all things being equal, it’s probably better to cut those which lean in the direction of the prevailing culture or those which are only exaggerating the imbalances in our lives.  It will always be easier to rebalance later if need arises.

3.      When the tree is young, one is not as immediately concerned with fruit as with shaping a tree which in time can produce a lot of fruit.  Strength, spacing, and appropriate size of tree and limbs are all concerns here. Select for good crotch angles of scaffold branches with equal spacing about the tree in relation to each other. One wants to utilize the available sunlight without shading out another lower branch, or interfering with fruiting of nearby trees.

4.      Fruit is much more likely to be produced on branches with orientations to the vertical of 30 degrees or more.  Except for the central trunk, it behooves one to maintain a tree with scaffold and fruiting branches at wide angles.  On an improperly maintained tree one often sees branches which seem all to compete with one another for the light and eventually one of the competitors breaks under the load with the weak crotch angle.  We should seek to develop a well rounded life and a life complementary to those around us. 

5.      Keep in mind that the closer to the ground the fruit is, the easier it will be to pick.  One should try to maintain a fruit tree the shape of a Christmas tree rather than a vase.  Picking without a ladder is far faster and safer than with.  One might correspondingly note that cultivating one’s simpler gifts is far more fruitful than cultivating those of “higher” stature.  Mother Teresa time and again humbly states the same.  How should the husband pray—cleaning the gutters.

6.      The first and easiest of cuts are the waterspouts.  These are all those adventious one-year’s growth which you see growing straight up from the top side of branches exposed to the sun.  Stepping back from the tree, sometimes one can see whole forests of these growths.  Some small percentage of these have advantageous orientations for fruit production.  This is like the “cheap grace” which Bonhoeffer refers to.  It is well intentioned but it needs to be thinned and selected for fruitful effort.  Another parallel to this vigorous unfruitful growth is the rapid and easy growth of the ego.  Ego grows so easily and quickly that it can soon overshadow all other productive venues.  (Curiously, many times watersprouts grow repeatedly from the same locations and need to be removed each spring again.)

7.      I’m embarrassed to say that it took me many years to realize the real importance and the full consequences of the simple pruning rule to head back (completely remove) any branch which is greater than ½ to 2/3 the diameter of the central leader.  This can be applied to lateral branches on the main scaffolds as well.  The result is a strong central leader, with strong scaffold branches, and weaker fruit bearing laterals.  This practice ensures that later on, one is not faced with the inevitable choice between eliminating one of two strong branches when they inevitably need to be headed or in the case of the central leader, any slight tilt of the tree can cause the overly strong “scaffold” to dominate the tree. These necessary but drastic cuts later can lead to a severely unbalanced tree or such a large wound that it endangers survival of the tree.  Don’t I remember Jesus saying as much, “one can’t serve both God and mammon?”  One must constantly be alert to those things which might divert us from our true calling.  When some interest starts to command greater than half to 2/3 of our resources or time we must be wary choose. 

8.      Thinning cuts are necessary to eliminate overcrowding and to allow sunlight to the interior of the tree.  Sunlight is necessary for full coloration of the fruit and to encourage the production of fruit bud for the following year.  Overcrowding also diminishes the size of the fruit and allows conditions which promote disease, particularly the rots.  Thinning out the overcrowdedness and busyness in our lives is necessary too.  The refreshment which results, allows for quality and  health in our development.  And it also allows for the development of something other than that which is only for our own immediate good.

9.      Fruit begets more fruit because the weight of the fruit pulls down the branch to a more productive angle.  If an otherwise well positioned limb grows too vertically to either set good fruit bud or to attain a strong angle to the main trunk, a good method to bring the branch into production is to weight it down with some load.  (Bricks or small bags of sand work well.)  Sometimes God give us loads to carry and we wonder “why me?”  Later we find that after we have managed those burdens, others seem so much easier to bear.  We also find we are capable of so much more than we ever would have imagined!  God is shaping us into a bearer of much fruit.

10.  One good rule of thumb for pruning mature trees is “over and under”—prune laterals either heading to the sky above or those underneath which will only be shaded by other branches above.  This is driven by sunlight—don’t shade the fruiting surface. 

11.  An old saying in heading back a vigorous branch is to “prune to weakness.”  This is especially true of younger trees.  This encourages the production of fruit instead of promoting rapid vegetative growth.  Weakness can become the very source of much which is of value.  See how often our faults become the very places where we become vulnerable to God’s graces.  We share with others most deeply when our pride is stripped away by revelations of our humanity and our fallenness.  Think too of Christ—his “weakness” is his humanity, mortality.  But through his death (his weakness) his life attained all meaning and fruitfulness.   The fruit of David’s weakness was Solomon.  The fruit of Rebecca’s weakness was Jacob-Israel.

12.  On the contrary, on old fruiting spurs, where the size of the fruit and vigor of the bud has diminished with time, it is good to head these back to encourage a little vigorous vegetative growth and renew the fruit bud.  Pruning practices must be adjusted as trees age to maintain a balance of shoot growth throughout the canopy. We can all become less productive with time and some new direction can renew our fruitfulness.

13.  A rule of thumb for trees is that there is roughly the same area comprising the root system as the leaf system.  Roots easily extend out to the areas covered by the greenery.  These also require nourishment, protection, and water.  Awareness of one’s roots and cultivating the nourishment which comes through them is the path of the wise.  We can’t change those roots, but how often we ignore them!

14.  Sometimes when I prune in the winter, I just can’t seem to cut enough.  I keep seeing in my mind all that fruit, and I just can’t bear to eliminate any of it.  Come summer, I see the folly—a tree crowded with foliage and small fruit.  Instead of imagining the fruit, one needs to imagine the leaves and whether they will intercept sufficient sunlight.  Good fruit will result.   Don’t focus on life’s prizes but on developing one's capabilities to utilize the graces God sends our way.  The fruit will come.

15.  Not all trees have the same growth habit.  There are distinctly different types, some bear fruit on distinct spurs, others more on the tips, some have naturally good structure and crotch angles, while others have a more upright growth habit; some trees have much more vigor than others.  Know thyself…some people are just high maintenance. 

16.  We’ve all seen trees which have been neglected for many years.  They have become a tangle of branches and wild growth.  They might have borne fruit for a few years but after a few years of neglect, they only bear apples on rare occasions.  One often sees where someone has tried to bring these trees back into bearing by radical surgery.  I’ve done it myself a few times.  The result is that the tree responds with a tremendous amount of wild new growth.  By the end of the season a forest of watersprouts has topped the tree, and it looks almost as bad as when one began.  With long neglected trees, the best rule of thumb is to limit pruning to a few major shaping cuts.  In no case remove more than 1/3 of the wood.  It’s the same in our interior life.  Be realistic.  Take a few good whacks at the worst habits, and allow the light to enter and work it’s magic.  This light will draw forth the spurs to fruitfulness.  As this happens more of the offenders can safely be pruned out for good.

17.  Sometimes, especially on mature trees and especially in the vigorously growing top, it creates a big problem when one prunes too heavily—but it needs to be done.  The wild growth of wood the following year is very difficult to bring into production.  Summer pruning is very effective in this case.  Wait until the majority of the tree’s annual growth is done—about mid-August and then take a few major cuts.  This won’t result in nearly the regrowth which would occur if done in the dormant season.  Likewise one can see a method to the Creator’s seeming madness when in the summer of a successful career, some event like a job loss or an injury  causes a major reshaping of one’s life.  Or a high flyer with little time for family life is forced into change by an ultimatum from a loved one. 

18.  When actually confronting the tree, all the book drawings in the world seem like they are of such little use, because no two situations are alike. But this is just the wonder of life!





Addendum for herbaceous plants

Having pruned apples and consistently mused on the spiritual parallels, I was quite surprised when I found myself picking rosemary and because the plants had gotten overgrown, it was better to assume a strategy of pruning the plants in order to rejuvenate them.  In so doing, I found there were many more parallels to interior growth which never occurred to me in the orchard.


1.                                          Always look at harvesting cuts as pruning cuts as well.  For example, a small heading cut to a productive branch will inevitably lead to a branching of the stem and usually to overcrowding in the vicinity.  So one should either cut back to the main stem and thus harvest the entire branch or head back to encourage branching because there’s growing space to fill with a crop.  Likewise, don’t be stingy with the gifts we have to give, only giving the tips.  By giving freely of what we have will encourage the growth of much more from within.  It’s also much less time consuming to give fully than to agonize over what quantity—where to stop. 

2.                                          Over time, there often develop weak side branches from the main stems.  Since these would yield little quantity of leaves, these weaker shoots are seldom picked.  Over time they become very long. And since these “stragglers” aren’t strong, they often hug the ground impeding air circulation and tangle with adjoining plants and impede the walkways.  Since they become so long and rangy, one is often surprised where they originate.  A helpful method is to wiggle the suspected straggler to see where it goes and then cut it off at the base.  We have certain unproductive growths in our lives too.  Tugging at them so their telltale movements become apparent can point out to us where their origination lies and we can best eliminate them at the base.






   Pruning tools:  sharp, varied, well maintained


1.                   Good quality hand pruners—replaceable blade, sap groove in anvil blade  (Felco #2)  used for the greatest number of cuts.

2.                  Compound lopper—for bigger cuts

3.                  Small saw


Spiritual tools:  the sharpness of truthfulness and honesty

--varied methods appropriate to the job

--tools well maintained through frequent use and practice


1.                   Small tool—prayerful self-reflection

2.                  Sometimes you need a bigger tool.   A good set of ears and openness to hear others.

3.                  Then there’s the big jobs!  God will make those big cuts when needed—we need only say,        “Yes”.




Glossary of Identification and Methods:

      Types of cuts

      Thinning Cut—cut as close to the parent stem as possible, without injuring it so that it can completely heal over.

      Heading Cut—a shortening of the growing stem which causes branching or encouragement of a particular bud


       Types of buds

       Flower bud—will become a cluster of flowers in the spring.  They are recognizable by plumpness and somewhat by position on the tree (depending on variety).

       Leaf bud—will become a leaf or stem.  These are much more slender or are just small bumps on a twig.