The Work of Early Spring

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By Jeff Main of Good Humus Produce, courtesy of Capay Valley Farm Shop

The month of January and the first few weeks of February are the winter doldrums. The sun still low in the sky, the days short, the ground a big reservoir of cold, soil life at a low ebb. For the farm life, it’s a chore just to keep the heart beating or the sap flowing. So seeds stay unsprouted for weeks, leafy greens grow soooo s”¦l”¦o”¦w”¦l”¦y. But then, sometime in those first days of February, a bud pops, a blade of grass emerges, a green carpet appears where none existed yesterday, the first arugula plant bolts, a wild almond along the roadside turns white with the first flowers of the year, and winter is over. The winter that we love, the true break in the action, where a job that is put off today is not a crisis tomorrow, where the evenings are long and dark, and good books are once again filled with moving bookmarkers, that winter has ended. From now until next December, the moments are stolen from the ever-present needs of all the life of the farm.

The jobs that begin their clamor first are pruning, grafting, and seeding flats, or if you are already behind, ordering seeds from the catalogues. It turns out, though, even when done under a time crunch, pruning is my favorite job. Pruning is an art, not a science, although reducing pruning to part of the science of maximizing production could be considered a science. Among other jobs on the farm, it can be, when the cares of the world are not too great, a highly meditative work. All the processes are repetitive, my feet become accustomed to the eight steps up the ladder, I adjust to the range of motions that the arms and wrists undergo to move from one cut to the next, my eyes automatically check the three legs of the ladder for alignment, and I hop onto the first rung with extra force to ensure a firm foundation for each step upward. Each cut made has a series of factors governing it, many very practical, and others more about perception of the future stature, health and vigor of the tree. These factors run through my mind as each cut is made, but after many years of these decisions, it is a background orchestra of many thoughts, each coming forward at the appropriate time. Diseased or dead wood, crowded wood, too vigorous wood, crossing wood, wood too thin to support the coming fruit, each factor plays a solo and then steps back. All in the background, leaving me free to enjoy the mysteries of a cool cloudy midwinter day, and the doing of a job that must be done, now that February is upon us.

I get the contented feeling at the end of the day of seeing several dozen trees ready for the coming blossoming and fruit, and I can look at the result of twenty years of this pruning process. There in front of me are all the decisions I ever made on which cut to make, a tree that stands as a reference to every right or wrong decision, the results standing in contrast to the darkening sky. I remember one of my Dad’s favorite sayings, “If my decisions turn out to be right 50% of the time, then I’ve had a good day.”


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