I came to gardening late in life. Not till my mid-40’s did I have the courage or attention to put living things into my heart or the ground and take responsibility for their survival, much less their thriving. Once I learned the low maintenance and seemingly simple secrets of planting perennial gardens, and then watched in awe as they kept coming back year after year, I was unencumbered no more. I discovered that some things are worth taking care of, offer back more than they take, and warrant the patience and consideration.
It was not until five years ago, that I first ventured into the world of fruit trees. My senses overcome by dreams of pies, crisps, and jam, I bought two small peach trees from our local garden store. The owner reassured me they were a hearty variety and would suffer New England winters with relative ease. I was ebullient as I unloaded them from my car. What ensued was a long weekend of rather grueling work following the instructions just to get them settled correctly into the ground. It was a high maintenance enterprise; perhaps that should have been my first clue.
By the middle of the second summer, both peach trees had tripled in size and were loaded with small, hard, green, baby peaches – hundreds on each tree, each one about the size of an apricot. I was ecstatic and cocky; the envy of my friends and neighbors who marveled at my green thumb. The branches were laden, and so were my plans.
But every time I looked at the budding peaches, there did not seem to be a right moment or a clear choice about which ones to cut away.
A few friends mentioned that I should remove many of the peach-lets or the others would never get big enough. But every time I looked at the budding peaches, there did not seem to be a right moment or a clear choice about which ones to cut away. How could I? I was in awe of each one. I could not bear the thought of “thinning” my bumper crop as my future now held an excited plan for the potential of each luscious piece of fruit. In this case, more would be better, or so I thought.
One morning, coming around the corner of the house, I was crestfallen to see that the larger of the two trees has split right down the middle and two huge branches thick with fruit were now lying on the ground. The peaches were all still hard and small, each one pressed against others in thick clusters, looking more like jumbo grapes than peaches. Their weight had ripped the main branches from the center of the tree and now only two small, somewhat anemic branches remained connected to the trunk.
Gazing at the broken tree with virtually all of the under-ripe peaches now on the ground, the metaphor struck me hard; having to prune the tree required knowing that one has to say “no” to some in order to say “yes” to others. I have always had difficulty letting go of possibility and potential, but now, that was ALL I had. In trying to protect all my options, I now had none. In being gluttonous about my appreciation for everything, I put myself at risk for having nothing.
The peach tree was offering me a wake-up call, imploring me to see the implausibility and unsustainability of my ways.
Making decisions that cut me off from enduring relationships or forms of identity has always been challenging. Reluctant to create and grieve losses, my customary way has been to try to carry everything forward with me as I go, continuing to add the new but not releasing the old – believing that if I could just increase my own capacities, I could find a way to hold the added weight. The peach tree was offering me a wake-up call, imploring me to see the implausibility and unsustainability of my ways. My life was groaning under the weight of having grossly overextended myself in too many directions, to too many people, and towards too much possibility. Without “thinning,” no part was likely to flourish.
I decided to practice pruning on the smaller, still-intact tree. My hands hovered tentatively over the clusters of baby peaches, as I tried to discern which ones would suffer my excision with the least loss of potential. What if I chose to leave a peach that was a “dud?” What if I pruned away the one that was destined for juicy greatness? The process was laughable and laborious. I quietly gave thanks to each piece of fruit and asked its forgiveness, then twisted it off at the stem. By the end of the morning, I had successfully thinned about every third peach by hand, offering space for what remained and feeling sure that I had conquered a major metaphorical obstacle to my own – and my peach trees’ – thriving. I ended that summer with a very reduced, but truly bumper crop of beautiful peaches – enough to feed peach crisp to all of my friends who said of my insight about pruning, “I told you so.”
These sorts of discernment issues come in matters of degree. My life is a little lighter these days. But I can admit – laughing at myself now – that the exact same thing happened again the following year with the second peach tree. There is a very good chance that I won’t fully conquer some of my challenges with letting go. Being grateful can still confuse me into wanting to hold on to everything I value. But at least I have learned that “thinning” makes for a far better life, with more space around those things truly chosen…and a better peach. Just being able to remind myself of that really helps. And in the meantime, while I may not have a lot of fragrant, perfect peach pies coming out of my oven, I have gotten darned good at making green peach chutney.