Cutting back to grow

Taking a leaf from how plants handle pruning.

It’s September 2020 in California, during a worldwide pandemic, during some of the worst wildfires ever seen. Smoke and ash have fallen from the sky for more than a month now. The sun, obscured by particles, casts a dull, other-world orange across the landscape.

On the rare days when the air proves good enough to breathe, I go out to tend my garden. And at this time of year, that means a lot of pruning. Given that I have a lot of time on my hands (see global pandemic and wildfire smoke), pruning my garden started me thinking about a different kind of cutting back.

Since March, like people around the world, I have experienced loss. And many have experienced oceans more loss than I have. Still, life as I knew it has been curtailed, and I mourn aspects of that life six months out. On a daily basis, I have missed my co-workers, friends and family. I have missed people who I said “hello” to every day on my way to and from work. I miss the small interactions of saying “hello” when passing students in the UC Davis Arboretum, watching ducklings follow their mothers across the green grass, stopping to smell a flower.

I miss going to a restaurant and people watching. I miss anticipated and canceled classical music concerts, comedy shows, random meet-ups at a coffee house.

The wildfire smoke has added another layer of loss to 2020. Many people have had to flee, have lost their homes or even their lives. My losses loom less large than those, yet I still feel them. On days when the air is unhealthy, I miss having a morning cup of tea on the porch, reading a book in the hammock, walking the dog, going for a hike.

“Cut back, cut back, cut back…when does it end?” I grumble. Then, when the air quality allows, I get out the pruning shears and go to tend my garden.

You see, many fruit and vegetable plants become more productive with pruning. This seems counterintuitive. How do you get more produce with less plant? The secret: Plants left to their own devices will continue to grow shoots and leaves and stems, but they won’t produce as many fruits and vegetables. They grow, yes, but it isn’t productive growth.

When I first began growing tomatoes around 20 years ago, pruning proved the most challenging part of gardening. I imagined tiny screams coming from the plants as I pulled out the shears. “Please! No!” they cried as I drew the sharp edges across their green stems. I pruned sparingly and my tomatoes became reedy and weedy, producing small, listless fruits.

After a few years I schooled myself and began to prune more skillfully. The plants responded by growing a bigger bounty. I’ve been happily honing my pruning skills ever since.

This September, I’ve been thinking back to those first years. Now I can identify with the plants, projecting the pain of the shears onto their tender green shoots. Cutting back is painful. This year is painful. Yet are there fruits to be had? Ways to grow? How can I take this cutting back and grow through it in a way that produce something nourishing?

Many things have been cut back in 2020, but questions about how this pruning might give me an opportunity to grow keep me going. As does my garden.

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