beginner’s mind

Shunryu Suzuki

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”  

–Shunryu Suzuki

   The best lessons in life are often the most humbling ones. Here’s one of the best I ever got.

I first ran into Buddhism in high school, the way I ran into most things at the time—by reading about it. I found its ideas compelling, though if pressed I doubt I could have articulated the feelings behind my interest, other than  some vague notions about discipline or self-mastery. I imagined being Buddha-like: to have perfect clarity of mind, to have complete mastery over emotions and desires, to be completely in control of  body and mind, regardless of the situation at hand. That was appealing—my body, mind, emotions, and desires were all over the place—and that’s what I thought Buddhism was about. So, I continued to read about it, with the thought that I was coming closer to truly understanding it, at which point maybe I would be…………………ENLIGHTENED. Maybe the right combination of words on the page would finally unlock the mystery, and I would at last be able to see things as they really are, forever.

I tried to sit in meditation a few times over those years, on my own, but found it physically awkward and extremely uncomfortable, which were bad enough, but the worst part was that sitting still and silent for even a few short minutes  was overwhelmingly oppressive mentally, as my mind maintained an unbearable torrent of thoughts the entire time. In short, I didn’t sit much, but boy, I thought about it a lot. So my practice, such as it was, remained an intellectual one.

That changed a few years later, when I moved to a city with a Zen center, where I received instruction in zazen (meditation) practice, and was able to sit with a group of fellow practitioners. The aura and rituals of the zendo were a strong motivating force, as was the need to remain silent and still for 40 minutes at a stretch, so as not to disturb those around me, so over time I became a semi-regular meditator. Yet all the old struggles remained; I just became better at enduring them for the requisite time period. Occasionally my thoughts would slow down, and my legs slowly adapted to sitting in half-lotus without hurting as much, but the thoughts (and the pain) always returned, sometimes with greater force than ever. Throughout, I kept my eye on the more senior practitioners, with their shaved heads, robes, and austere gazes, and tried to read them as I read books, trying to grasp their secret, to will myself to be more like them, or at least as I perceived them to be.

Then came the moment: One day after a meditation period, I was standing outside with a guest student at the zendo, commenting with surprise and  dismay at what I perceived to be arrogant  behavior coming from some members of the community. After a long moment of looking me in the eye, he asked me why I thought people at a Zen center would be any different than people anywhere else in the world. And he looked at me some more. The sun had just set, and a cold breeze had come in off the ocean. I remember an acute awareness of my shoulders being hunched against the cold, while he seemed impervious to it somehow. We were standing close together. He was from New Zealand, and spoke with an accent. He smiled at me. I was speechless.

It may not sound like much, but that moment remains one of the most vivid of my entire life, evidently because I was ready for it, and because of what it so plainly revealed to me about myself, and about this quest that I had been on for so many years. Buddhism wasn’t about being superhuman; it’s about being human. People at the Zen center weren’t there because they were uniquely evolved beings, but because they were uniquely suffering, just like everyone else in the world.

As the Buddha taught, the root of this suffering is our human compulsion to incessantly discriminate, to project our ideas about ourselves and the world out onto ourselves and the world, as if they had some objective reality. This is  the trap of our having evolved the ability to self-reflect: not knowing how to stop objectifying all that we experience, based upon a mistaken understanding about the nature of the endless fountain of thoughts pouring out of our endlessly active minds.

The concept of enlightenment—-some kind of instantaneous (and permanent) transformation as presented in certain schools of Buddhism—-is undoubtedly the worst idea I picked up from my early studies of  Buddhist philosophy. As long as you are busy looking for it, you are simply blinding yourself to whatever is happening now. What a meditation practice offers (to me at least) is the opportunity to notice and experience whatever feelings I’m having in the moment—boredom, pain, and oppressive thoughts (or bliss, pleasure, and ecstatic thoughts, for that matter)— so many times over that the impulse to believe in, indulge in, invest in, reject, or cling to them gradually diminishes. Which leaves—finally—some empty space to simply be present in. To see, hear, smell, taste, and touch without preconceived ideas. To maintain a beginner’s mind, despite what we think we know. Happy New Year.

tree to tabletop

For a woodworker, one of the great advantages of milling your own lumber is that it allows for the design and construction of pieces of furniture with boards all sawn from the same log (or at least same tree), ensuring matching colors, grain patterns, and working characteristics. Another great advantage, whether you hire the work out to a portable sawmill operator, or do the milling yourself, is the significant cost savings versus buying lumber from a hardwood distributor. The greatest benefits, however, are being able to work with wood of truly unique character, and knowing the story (and some of the history) of the tree supplying the wood.

When marking some trees in my woodlot to be felled in a Timber Stand Improvement (TSI) thinning in 2010, my forester and I came across a very tall and straight Red Maple, about 20″ in diameter (dbh), with a clear (branch-free) stem for the first 30 feet or so, and large crown.  There are many like it in my forest. Historically, Red Maple was considered a low-value sawtimber species, and is a middling firewood with relatively low BTU value, so it was often spared during past harvests focused on higher value hardwoods, and often managed to grow into a dominant position in the forest canopy. By sheer numbers, Red Maple is the most common tree in New York state, and is a true generalist, able to grow and thrive on a wide variety of soils and sites. It can often be found as the only sizeable sawtimber species in forest stands otherwise severely degraded from repeated unsustainable harvesting practices.

If  visually healthy and still vigorous, I am happy to leave such trees to continue to grow to their full maturity.  In this case, the tree in question had suffered a substantial wound some years back; one of its upper scaffold limbs had died, or been sheared off in a storm or when a neighboring tree fell, and a visible rot column had developed along (and presumably inside) the trunk from the site of the wound downward—just how far down (and in), we couldn’t tell. In any event, this tree’s days were numbered, and its remaining value as sawtimber would only continue to decline over time.  Felling this large stem would also release the crowns of some promising maples nearby from the shading provided by the substantial canopy of the wounded tree, so it was an easy decision to mark it for felling.

Once on the ground, it was clear that a significant portion of the upper stem was punky and rotten beyond use, either as firewood or sawtimber. The lower portion of the stem was sound, however, and I managed to salvage the two lowest 8 foot logs. While most commercial mills will saw a log ‘for grade’— maximizing commercial value by cutting around ‘defects’, leaving in most cases a large quantity of narrow boards with clear faces, even from large diameter trees—I sawed these two logs into full width slabs ranging from 1.25″ to 3.5″ thick, and stacked and covered them to air dry over the next year or so.

milled lumber pileAfter drying the boards outdoors to the extent possible, I brought them inside to fully acclimate to the relative humidity of my shop. They would finally be at equilibrium—stable and ready to be worked—at about 7.5% moisture content. In the interim, I had come up with a few designs for tables that would take full advantage of their unique characteristics.

The primary point of interest of this wood—at least for me—was the wide band of chocolate brown heartwood at the center of the boards. Often considered an unsightly defect to be discarded, this tree’s heart would instead become a focal point.

red maple board

Another distinct feature of these boards would be their natural edges, which along with the heartwood/sapwood contrast are a vivid (and tactile) reminder that this board was once a tree—-all too easy to forget when looking at or working with squared dimensional lumber.

One additional feature of some of the boards—one that developed during the drying process, and that is most often cut away prior to working with  lumber—is the presence of dramatic end checks that occurred as the ends of the boards released their bound moisture faster than the faces or inner portions. While this can be minimized by sealing the endgrain  (with paint or wax) immediately after sawing a log into boards (envision the ends of a fistful of drinking straws and you have a sense of the ability of endgrain to conduct water in or out of a board versus facegrain), or by shading your lumber pile and protecting it from strong drying winds, it cannot be eliminated entirely. Some species are more susceptible than others; about one-quarter of my Red maple boards end-checked significantly.

Rather than discard the cracked sections of those boards, why not accentuate them? While such a crack or check can cause instability or even failure of a wide board in a piece of furniture (most often used as a tabletop), this instability can be overcome with the use of an inlaid wooden ‘key’ (often known as a butterfly key) that runs perpendicular to the crack and serves to lock the two sides together.  This technique, while certainly ages old, was popularized in the U.S. by the work of Pennsylvania craftsman George Nakashima in the second half of the 20th century.

In the years since some woodworkers have used the technique to excess for its visual effect (I have to admit that I was myself guilty of this on occasion earlier in my woodworking career); in my current approach, I have learned to use butterfly keys with restraint, and only for structural, rather than merely decorative reasons. Here’s what it looks like:


Here’s how it’s done (at least by me):

First, you have to cut a key. A common rule of thumb I’ve come across is that the key should not be longer than 3 or 4 inches, as it runs crossgrain to the board it stabilizes, and thus will move differentially with changes in humidity, and may want to work itself loose or otherwise cause problems. Nakashima often used very long and large keys in his furniture; my biggest have been around 4″ long with no evident problems. In designing a key, the angle is largely an aesthetic preference, though too steep an angle might make it more challenging to fit the key without damaging the corners. Nakashima seemed to prefer a shallow angle for his keys; the angle in the photos is ten degrees; I have also used 15 degree keys with no trouble.

So mill and square your key wood (I used Cocobolo here)—as accurately as possible—then layout the keys. I laid out two side by side in this case, as seen in the photo below, and cut them on the bandsaw, with a simple jig  (made of 1/4″ MDF, with a notch cut at 10 degrees) that rides the rip fence (see photo below). With careful layout, flipping the workpiece end for end, and upside down, will get you equal and symmetrical (and square-edged) keys.



Next, carefully hold the key in its desired location and score around it with a sharp knife:


Be sure to mark and maintain the original orientation of the board and key throughout the process. Next, you could mortise entirely by hand, but I use a trim router with 1/4″ bit to remove most of the waste, staying clear of the edges. This saves time, and accurately establishes the depth of the mortise:


For this 1″ thick tabletop, I cut my keys at 1/2″ thick, and routed the mortises at about 7/16″ deep, leaving the key slightly proud to be planed off after glue-up.


Next, sharpen your chisels (!), then carefully pare up to your layout/scored lines. Use a knife to clean out the corners of the mortise as necessary–don’t crush the crisp angles trying to work your chisel in there. Test fit your key carefully (and shallowly). Some folks taper the edges of their key; I find it easier to test fit accurately if I keep it square; I subtly chamfer the bottom edges once I know it will fit snugly. What you want is not too loose, but not too tight. You will learn what this means with some (hopefully not too painful) experience. Take your time. I use a small brush to apply a light coat of glue to the mortise walls and bottom, and use a block (!) to drive the key home (you’ll be very unhappy with the result if you beat on the key itself—don’t ask me how I know this….)


This Lie-Nielsen 102 (great little plane!) made quick work of planing the key flush (although you could sand and/or scrape as well):


Here’s the final result, handplaned surfaces awaiting a first coat of finish:


Not exactly your ‘run of the mill’ tabletop………………….

‘vernal’ pools

In 2011, I applied for and received grant funding to implement a number of conservation and habitat improvement measures on my land. The funding came from the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If approved for funding, CSP activities are carried out over a five year period, and encourage a broad range of stewardship measures. In my case, as nearly the entirety of my land is forested, the focus of my Conservation Plan (which defines and guides the implementation of the program) is woodland habitat improvement, including such measures as:

  • Forest stand improvement for wildlife (creating or conserving snags and/or den trees), and for soil quality (erosion control);
  • Forest wildlife structures (brush piles, bat houses, nest boxes, etc.);
  • Hardwood crop tree release;
  • Restoration of rare or declining habitat;
  • Riparian forest zone enhancement;
  • Creation of shallow water habitat

The great thing about this program—-and other similar federal programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), among others—-is that you are being paid to do things on your land that 1) you may have been doing already; or 2) you always wanted to do but couldn’t justify or prioritize the  expense. For me, this was particularly true with the construction of shallow water habitat, otherwise known generally as ‘vernal’ pools.

A ‘vernal’ pool is an ephemeral body of water that provides critical (and often lacking) breeding habitat for a diversity of species. I place the vernal in quotes because it refers to springtime, when such pools are commonly full when found in the open, and are most necessary for breeding (ver is spring in Latin); in reality, when found in woodlands, these pools are often equally full in the fall, depending on the rainfall in a given year. So a more accurate term in this case is woodland or seasonal pool.

In any event, there are a few key features that distinguish this type of aquatic habitat from others that may be present nearby:

  1. They periodically dry up, but are generally full for at least 90 days from late winter through mid-spring;
  2.   They are lined with at least a semi-impermeable base, preferably of clay or silty loam, in order to temporarily hold the rain, snowmelt, surface runoff, or seasonally high groundwater that fills the pool;
  3. They contain no fish, which if present would prey voraciously on  breeding aquatic organisms, such as occurs in a permanent pond;
  4. They average 6-30″ deep maximum, with varied topography, and contain a variety of organic materials (ie–leaf litter, stumps, roots, logs, rocks, etc.) to add habitat complexity, in addition to 30-50% coverage with aquatic vegetation.

While my land has a small creek running through it, as well as a permanent man-made pond (which harbors a population of introduced smallmouth bass), neither offer the unique combination of traits that define a seasonal pool.  While perhaps most essential in the life cycles of reptiles, amphibians, and insects—they have been called the ‘coral reefs of Northeastern forests’ for their ability to support and sustain life, and are estimated to provide breeding habitat for half of all frog species and one third of all salamander species where present—seasonal pools can also provide an important water source for a variety of mammal and bird species during times of drought, or in areas where surface water is otherwise nonexistent.

Here is a site in my woodlot that I chose for one of the pools:

vernal  pool location

I chose this spot as the soils in this area remain wet throughout the year due to periodic surface runoff from above, as well as from a number of springs that flow even during dry spells. There is a fair amount of clay in the soil as well. The carpet of Spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) in the photo is indicative of moist, rich soil (as are the Sugar Maple, Basswood, and White Ash in this forest stand).

It helps to know someone with a bulldozer, such as my neighbor who was kind enough to help out:

bulldozing vernal pool

bulldozing vernal pool

completed vernal pool

He first dug out the rough shape to an approximate depth, then created, compacted, and graded the berm that impounds the pool, leaving one side of the berm slightly lower than the rest to serve as a spillway to handle any overflow during times of high water. This all took place in August. A few weeks later, following a good rain, I went back up the hill with my camera and found this:

vernal pool full

There were wood frogs leaping in and splashing around as I approached. Build it, and they will come, as the saying goes.

the empty mind of the hunter

Here’s the scene: Bright sunny October afternoon, slight breeze, 50 degrees, leaves falling, dead silence. I am perched 20+ feet off the ground in a treestand hung in a large Hemlock on the wooded hillside, camo-ed head to toe, compound bow in hand, doing my best not to move—or to think—anticipating the approach of any of the many deer that regularly pass through on the trail that snakes through the forest 15 yards away from my chosen tree. Depending on my physical and/or mental state, this scene is either a moment of bliss or torture. Dragging a bag of thoughts and worries up the hill usually ensures the latter;  in this case sometimes better not to go out at all, as an empty mind is prerequisite for this type of close-range hunting. Thinking one’s way through a hunt ensures (at least for me) any number of distractions: boredom, hunger, cold hands and/or feet, all kinds of noisy fidgeting, bad pop songs incessantly playing in one’s mind; it also almost always ensures that you will miss the subtle sights and sounds of the approach of a deer, until it is too late to raise and draw one’s bow or gun without being detected. This kind of mental drifting leading to missed opportunities during a hunt has happened to me more times than I would care to admit.

This day is bliss, though; nowhere else I’d rather be, no agenda-driven thoughts. On this day, the deer are really just an excuse to spend a few hours forgetting about everything and simply existing, like a sated hawk or owl. No need to move, no need to think; receptive, present. Time loses its linear quality, becomes slippery and malleable—minutes seem to encompass hours, or hours slip by in minutes. Vision shifts and becomes panoramic, diffused, freeing the mind from its habituated responses to the world. The slightest rustlings in the leaf litter are magnified; the atrophied sense of smell becomes especially acute, dominated by the delicious earthy scent of fungal decay on the forest floor.

About 800 years ago, the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan, Eihei Dogen, wrote the following:

To study the way is to study the self.

To study the self is to forget the self.

To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.

In the modern world, sitting quietly, thinking nothing, doing nothing, which is for all of our animal cousins (and was surely for our tribal ancestors) the most common of  daily activities, seems to be a lost art among our kind. I wonder if we know what we’re losing in the process. Hunting is one of  few common  rituals remaining that by its very nature requires a degree of meditative consciousness, a temporary forgetting of the self. Homo sapiens—literally ‘wise man’ (no hubris there!); maybe we’ve grown a bit too wise; so impressed with our own brains (and their creations) that we have forgotten how to just be, part of a much larger whole.

The poet Gary Snyder (in a poem called ‘Long Hair’) reverses our customary view of the hunt, describing it as a subversive means for deer to infiltrate human consciousness:

Hunting season:

Once every year, the Deer catch human beings. They do various things

     which irresistibly draw men near them: each one selects a certain man.

     The Deer shoots the man, who is then compelled to skin it and carry its

     meat home and eat it. Then the Deer is inside the man. He waits and

     hides in there, but the man doesn’t know it. When enough Deer have

     occupied enough men, they will strike all at once. The men who don’t

     have Deer in them will also be taken by surprise, and everything will

     change some. This is called “takeover from inside.”

Here in New York, bow season starts in a few days. I am looking forward to again becoming a student of the Deer.

spike buck

Tsuga canadensis part 1: the wood

Hemlock isn’t a glamorous wood. It is coarse, brittle, and full of splinters. It has no value as a furniture wood,  it checks and warps significantly as it dries, often randomly splits apart where its growth rings meet, and its rock hard knots can dull or even chip the steel of sawblades or chisels—and will bend near any nail you attempt to drive into one (not to even mention what it takes to pull out a half-embedded bent nail from those knots).  It would make a terrible firewood, as it has minimal Btu value, and throws off sparks that could start an unwanted fire elsewhere. Yet with all that being said, hemlock does have its own significant and unique values, both from utilitarian, and especially ecological standpoints.

Ironically, one of the earliest and most extensive uses of Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) didn’t involve the wood at all. Hemlock bark is extremely rich in tannic acid (10-13%), which back in the day was essential in the tanning of leather. Entire forests of hemlock were felled in the pursuit of the bark, which was peeled and hauled to local tanneries, with the stripped logs most often left behind to rot. It is estimated that over 70 million hemlocks were harvested and peeled in the Catskill Mountains of New York in the 19th century, before synthetic tanning agents were developed.

While hemlock was surely always used to some degree by early Americans as coarse construction lumber (I’ve seen 24″ wide hemlock floorboards in 19th century farmhouses here in New York), it was historically a distant second softwood option, behind Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus), which is a fine and stable cabinet/furniture wood, as well as an easily worked and high quality construction timber. These qualities led to White pine being drastically overharvested throughout the northeast during the colonial era; this, combined with the advent of a few devastating insect and disease problems, and the transition of many former pine forests to a mix of more shade tolerant hardwood species, have kept the pines from their former abundance and majesty. While late 18th century records speak of entire groves of pines at over 250 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter in my town, the tallest pines in all of the northeast U.S. no longer reach 160 feet in height. So, largely of necessity, hemlock has seen a resurgence in more recent times, as rough construction lumber, and particularly, as a barn wood.

hemlock post

In the picture above, which is a 6×6 post, in addition to the residual marks left from the circular blade that was used in milling the wood, you can clearly see the coarse texture of hemlock’s grain, with the light colored early wood and plainly darker summer grown wood of each annual growth ring clearly distinct from each other. Hemlock does not have any distinct color variation between heartwood and sapwood, as do pines, as well as most hardwoods. When used as framing lumber it is rarely kiln-dried before use, so arrives fresh from the mill in a very wet, very heavy state. It tends to smell a little sour and rank when green–unlike the fresh resinous scent of the pines–but becomes pretty well odorless once dry, at which point it becomes very light in weight, at just under 27 pounds per cubic foot (compare to air-dried White oak at 48 lbs./cu. ft.).

The two photos below show one of the often fatal flaws of hemlock: ring shake, which is (obviously from the images) a separation of the wood between growth rings, which at times will not reveal itself until a wet board or timber is already in service.

hemlock 2x4

hemlock ring shake

In addition to lower cost, and in many regions of the northeast more availability, two significant advantages of hemlock over pine for barns and other outdoor structures are that: 1) it tends to hold nails more securely than pine; and 2) hemlock, while not truly rot-resistant, holds up much better over time than does pine when exposed to the elements, such as in board and batten siding.

board and batten siding

By the way, the picture above shows the proper way to install board and batten. Behind the battens there are 1/2″-3/4″ spaces between the boards (which are 12″ wide). The boards are fastened with two nails near the middle of the board only (here shown at about 3″ apart; it could be one nail in the middle for boards 10″ or less wide), with no nailing at the outer edges. The long nails that hold the 3″ wide battens in place run through the gaps between the boards before reaching the wall purlins, thus allowing the wide boards to expand and contract freely behind the battens with changes in humidity. Nailing these boards down tight (especially when still green or wet) would pretty well guarantee major cracks and splits where those nails restricted the inevitable wood shrinkage.

Another rule of thumb when installing hemlock siding is to orient the boards whenever possible with the heart of the tree facing out—the bark side in—in order to minimize the warping of the boards from pushing the battens away from the building. The reason this works is that while a board will always cup toward whichever side is driest (which is why if you leave a board on the lawn on a sunny summer day it will quickly curl toward the sun), all things being equal a board will most often cup away from the heart as it shrinks, which in turn is because wood shrinks more along its growth rings than across them. Put another way, in most all wood species, tangential shrinkage will be far greater than radial shrinkage, which is why quartersawn lumber is so much more dimensionally stable than flatsawn, but that’s a story for another day. You can see some of this in action in the photo below: heart is on the bottom, the board is warping upward, away from the heart. Install this board with the heart out, and it won’t want to push the battens away from the wall.

hemlock end grain

That’s it for the wood. Next time I’ll delve into the character and nature of the tree itself.


pole barn

I haven’t posted in a while, largely because I have been working away at building a pole barn in my backyard, which was desperately needed as an outdoor work and storage space. It’s done now, so I figured I would break back into the blog by first sharing some photos of the barn, and in my next post (coming soon) to talk in some detail about Eastern Hemlock—Tsuga canadensis—the local tree that provided all of the lumber for the project.

pole barn

pole barn window

pole barn frame

arbor day

Here in New York, today is Arbor Day. Founded in 1872 by J. Sterling Morton, after he had moved from the heavily forested state of Michigan to the treeless plains of Nebraska, Arbor Day encourages each of us to plant trees, to care for them, and to remember how essential they are in our lives. Over one million trees were planted on that first holiday, and untold billions more since, as Arbor Day is now celebrated all over the world. In the U.S., the national holiday takes place on the last Friday in April; in addition, each state holds its own Arbor Day celebration, with the dates determined by climate and suitability for tree planting.

While I can—and often do—talk about trees all day long, to anyone willing to listen (or unable to escape), today I wanted to share some images that for me speak louder than words. I took these two photos for their symbolic power—the first at Overlook Mountain near Woodstock, New York, at the site of an abandoned 19th century resort; the second at a cemetery along a roadside in Cortland, New York. Each spoke very profoundly to me at the time of the ephemerality of life, and of the role of trees in the endless spiral of birth, death, and renewal on earth.

trees in abandoned building

cemetery tree


After a few nerve-wracking frosty nights in a row (down to 30 degrees or so), today is in the 70’s, sunny, and the pollinators are out! In addition to honey bees, there are bumble bees, flies, ants, and a number of other insects I have yet to identify out on the blossoms of my peach, pear, plum, and crab apple trees. We would all be screwed–and very hungry– without these insects who tirelessly carry pollen from one flower to the next, gathering nectar for themselves in the process, and ensuring that our fruits, vegetables, and other seed-bearing plants that are not wind-pollinated (including many forest trees) are able to reproduce. Take a minute to thank your local pollinators, or better yet go out and watch them in action. The photos below are of honeybees (Apis mellifera) on pear blooms in the orchard earlier today.

honey bee


Look at the size of the pollen sacs (some people call them pollen ‘baskets’) on her rear legs in this photo (on peach blooms)!

honey bee

Prunus persica

In my last post, I talked about grafting apple trees as a way to grow more or different varieties on an existing tree. One thing I didn’t fully address in that discussion is why pretty much all fruit trees you might purchase are topworked in some way by the nursery—most often the desired variety is budded onto an appropriate rootstock. Beyond the issue of using the character of the rootstock to determine the ultimate size of the tree, it would be reasonable to ask why more fruit trees are not simply grown from seed. The answer to this lies in the fact that for most common fruits, a seedling tree will most often bear little resemblance to its two parents, as there is so much genetic variability in say, apples, for example, that recessive traits often resurface. So in crossing two big sweet, red apples, you may well end up with a runty crab-like fruit with little or poor flavor. In addition to being a gamble, growing from seed also requires extra patience, as the seedling will obviously take much longer to grow to bearing age than would a grafted or budded tree.  Occasionally, a seedling tree is found to have exceptional fruit, with unique shape, color, flavor, resistance to pests and/or disease, or long-term keeping qualities, but this is a relative rarity. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try, as you may get lucky, or famous, or at least get to name your own variety, but don’t bet the farm on it. There is one significant exception to this rule, however—the peach.


Peaches are known for being ‘true to type’ when grown from seed much more often than our other major temperate-zone fruits. This also holds true for nectarines, which are really just a naked (fuzzless) peach—they are each classified botanically as Prunus persica.  So if you want to grow some peach trees (believe me you do, whether you know it or not), and you’re not in a terrible hurry, save the pit from the next delicious peach you eat—a locally grown peach if possible, as it will most likely be adapted to your climate. In my case, I saved about two dozen pits from a young Sunhaven tree in my orchard which bore a crop for the first time last year. They were truly the most delicious peaches I have ever eaten. Long before I ever had my own orchard I had read about how there is nothing like eating a ripe, juicy peach right off the tree, blah blah blah,whatever….Well, all these years later I’m here to tell you folks…………………It’s true. I would stand beside this tree late last August picking and eating  a half-dozen or more at a time, every day until they were gone. No comparison to a supermarket peach whatsoever.

Like many other seeds, your peach seed will need to be cold stratified—basically it will need to experience a real (or simulated) winter before it will break dormancy and be able to germinate. You could bury them in a pot outside for the winter, or do as I did with mine and put it in a ziploc bag in the back of your refrigerator with a few drops of water for the winter. When spring rolls around, you then need to plant the seeds, but your success rate will be much higher (and things will move along much quicker) if you crack open the hard outer seed coat first, which can be challenging without the right tools. I tried a hand-held nutcracker, then a large pair of pliers, but peach pits are hard, and I had to apply so much pressure that my precious seeds went flying, as did the ‘shrapnel’ from the broken pits. I also mashed one of my fingers between the handles of the pliers, which didn’t make me very happy. So here’s what I came up with:

peach pit in vise

Using a vise allowed me to put great pressure on the pit, but in a very controlled, gradual way. I could actually hold the pit with one hand while cranking the vise with the other. This is the result:

opened peach pit

peach seeds

One thing you can see right away is the resemblance of a peach seed to an almond. They are in fact very closely related botanically, each belonging to the Prunus genus (almonds are P. amygdalus). So all these seeds are now planted in pots, and should be coming to life any time now. Near all peach trees are self-fertile, so you can get by with just one and still get a crop, but growing them this way is so easy (and so cheap), why not start your own peach orchard?

tree surgery

Tough thing when starting an orchard is deciding what varieties to choose from among the literally thousands available. If you’re lucky, there is a grower near you selling lots of different types that you can sample, or maybe at least a grocery that stocks more than the standard fare of overwaxed, underflavored commercial varieties. Otherwise, you’re left with the prospect of choosing your trees based upon descriptions in nursery catalogs, which to me often have a certain ring more akin to used car sales: “BEST VARIETY EVER! EXPLOSIVE FLAVOR! BEARS BUSHELS OF FRUIT IN THE FIRST YEAR! IMMUNE TO INSECTS AND DISEASE! HARDY TO THE ARCTIC CIRCLE! KEEPS IN THE REFRIGERATOR FOR SEVEN YEARS!”, and so on. Having been down that road, I can assure you that if it sounds like hype, it probably is to some degree, as there are going to be tradeoffs with any given choice. A further difficulty comes with trying to balance your choices based upon flavor with those based upon more practical characteristics, such as suitability to your soils and climate, or resistance to common diseases, such as apple scab or fire blight. And I won’t even get into discussing rootstocks here, which bring an array of their own characteristics into the mix, and can give you anything from a tree that matures at 35′ tall and might live for 200 years, to one that is mature at 5′ and can be grown in a pot.

When I first started working with fruit trees and realized how many distinct ‘antique’  or ‘heirloom’ apple varieties had been lost over the past century with the industrialization (and more recent globalization) of fruit production— thousands of apple varieties in the U.S. alone—I became a knee-jerk advocate for them, sometimes at the expense of common sense. I’ve since found my way to the middle ground, as there have been some truly outstanding ‘modern’ varieties developed by university breeding programs— bred for flavor, storage, hardiness, and pest/disease resistance—AND because some ‘old-time’ varieties are unheard of today for a reason: they either are pest magnets, or have no flavor, or bad flavor, bad texture, etc…….Of great help to me in narrowing down the options has been the Fruit, Berry, and Nut Inventory (4th edition), published by Seed Savers Exchange, which lists and describes 8,750 varieties. Ultimately, you just have to make your most educated guess as to what will grow and produce well in your region, as sometimes a variety that is astoundingly productive and flavorful in one area produces poorly or is far less palatable somewhere else—even somewhere nearby, depending upon soil fertility and drainage, microclimate, available sunlight, presence of pollinators, preexisting pest and disease populations, and so on.

If you do find yourself in a situation where you have chosen or inherited a tree that produces poor quality fruit, the good news is that you don’t have to go back to the drawing board, waiting (again) for years while your new tree comes into bearing age. Instead, you can upgrade your existing trees with some simple surgery, incorporating as many new varieties as you like, while retaining the use—and the vigor—of the pre-established root system. The two basic techniques of ‘topworking’ a fruit tree are grafting and budding. I’m going to limit this discussion to the former, as now is the time for grafting here in upstate New York. Specifically, the rest of this post will illustrate one type of grafting, known as the cleft graft, which can be used to radically overhaul an existing tree.

gold rush apple treeThe photo above shows the lower half of a Gold Rush apple I planted a number of years ago (on M-7 semi-dwarfing rootstock). It’s a good apple, a more ‘modern’ type bred from Golden Delicious, with significant disease resistance and long storage life, but not my favorite. I had planted two in my orchard, and decided last fall that I wanted to rework one of them this year. So maybe a month or so ago, when out pruning, I cut a number of pencil-sized branch sections from a Fuji that is growing elsewhere on the property (one of my favorite varieties, which amazingly enough was bred from that dreadful excuse for an apple named Delicious, crossed with a rare 19th century variety known as Ralls Janet), and put them into a ziploc bag in the refrigerator with a few drops of water. These cuttings, which are known as scions or scion wood, are generally taken from last year’s growth, although occasionally two year old wood can be used. They are genetically identical to the parent tree—they are the parent tree, really— so can be used in topworking to propagate that parent elsewhere. They must be cut while still dormant, and either used immediately or stored in such a way to keep them from drying out (hence the refrigerator). It is vital that they have a number of dormant buds along their length—a branch tip with the terminal bud is desirable but not mandatory.

The other half of the grafting ‘equation’ is a suitable rootstock—in this case my M-7, with the Gold Rush crown removed:

topped apple stem

In this situation, the tree will end up with three different genetic identities: the M-7 rootstock at the bottom, the Gold Rush section of stem—which sits above the point where the original tree was grafted low on the rootstock (technically known as an interstem)—in the middle, and the Fuji on top. It seems somewhat sad to ‘decapitate’ a tree in this way, especially the first time, but with a superior tree as the result, it is worth the effort, and with practice the rate of success is near 100%.

After making the topping cut, the next step involves making a split or ‘cleft’ vertically in the top of the cut stem, into which a pair of scions, cut into an elongated ‘V’ shape on the lower end, are wedged:

cleft graft

cleft graft

The key to this entire operation is cambium contact—the green, living tissue of the scion wedge must align with and touch that of the rootstock, or nothing is going to happen, other than that the scionwood will dry out and die. In the case of a cleft graft, what this means is that two scions are inserted at the outer edges of the cleft, where their outer edge of cambium can come into contact with the cambium at the outer ends of the cleft (obviously any scion inserted into the middle of the cleft would be useless, as there is no living tissue there—an interesting reminder of how little of a tree’s mass consists of live cells). I use grafting tape and wax to cover the cleft, which keeps things moist until the magic starts and you can see the scion buds begin to sprout, at which point you’ve got a new tree. The new stems will generally grow at an astounding rate, often as much as 4 feet in the first year, depending on the size and vigor of the rootstock, as all of the energy in those roots will now be directed into those two little sticks at the top. After a few years, once the tree has healed over the cleft with new wood, one of the two ‘leaders’ is usually selected as the main stem, and the other is pruned away.

waxed cleft graft

This technique can be used to rework an entire young tree, as I’ve done here, or can be selectively used to topwork sections of a much larger tree, such as might be found in an abandoned orchard. I was awestruck the first time I grafted successfully—still am amazed by it. Right now I’m looking forward to harvesting many bushels of Fujis in the years to come.