Pruning class

I enrolled in a pruning class at a community college several miles south of San Francisco. Today is the second of four class meetings. (A rundown of last week's class in Part IV of this post.) We're assembling in a backyard fruit orchard in Santa Clara to prune fruit trees. I have to be there at 9 a.m.

I shot a little video of me driving south down 101, but accidentally deleted it before uploading to YouTube. Whoops!

Santa Clara. I was born near here and lived here for 18 years, but I haven't got a clue what distinguishes Santa Clara from the cities and towns that surround it. Everything runs together, here in the heart of residential Silicon Valley. And for the most part it's not especially pretty.

I was a little kid before there was a Silicon Valley. I remember orchards and fields and roadside produce stands. The soil under the asphalt and expressways and factories is among the most fertile and rich you could ever hope to find. But Bill Hewlett and David Packard started something in their Palo Alto garage the old orchards could not withstand, and the rest is history.

Today Santa Clara feels dreary and dated in that uniquely suburban way.

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Rocks and agapanthus figure prominently in the local mise-en-scene.

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(FYI: these ugly, low-slung, knock-ups sell in the $800,000 to $900,000 range.)

We're here to prune fruit trees in the backyard of this house.


My teacher owns it. He used to live here, but now he rents it out.

Note Buddha head under Sequoia sempervirens. So California.


You expect your hort teacher to show up in a truck, but our's drives a beamer!


Okay, we're not here to compare cars; we're here to prune trees. Let's get down to business. Fruit trees. Lots of them. Apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, pomegranate.

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This woman thought I was "Gross!" for tasting seeds from a fallen, partly rotten pomegranate. As a rule, I despise people like her and avoid them at all costs. (The seeds were delicious.)


However I do deserve some disdain because I picked an orange without permission and ate it. How unbelievably rude of me. Driving home afterwards, I could not believe I did that! I must have been rendered temporarily insane by the sight of a bountiful orange tree. We can't grow them in San Francisco. We can hardly grow any fruit in San Francisco. Lemons (Meyer, and better, Eureka) and pineapple guava work best. Anyway, I deserve a spanking for picking an orange.

What is there to say about pruning fruit trees? Rule of Thirds. Don't remove more than one-third of a tree's crown in any year. Cut back to lateral branches that are at least one-third the diameter of the wood below the lateral. He couldn't remember if there's a third rule of thirds and I wouldn't know if there is or not.

Teacher shows us how it's done. Isn't he cute?


We pruned the trees to keep them small and healthy, cutting out dead and damaged wood and always leaving the collar so the tree can close the wound.

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After: IMG_6847

These pots are groovy as hell.




I'm always taken aback by the sight of an exposed compost pile.


Rats? Raccoons?


I used to add charcoal to my compost pile too. But I thought it was a no-no.

He has a beautiful garden with a unique style that I can't capture on camera with 30 horticulture students milling around. I'll just say the garden is simple and understated and feels very nice to be in.

After a few hours, I felt satisfied. This was fun, and I'm looking forward to next week. As I understand it, we'll be pruning ornamentals in Palo Alto.

I rarely drive this far south of San Francisco. Since I'm in the neighborhood, I call my dad to see if he wants to have lunch. He still lives in the house where I grew up. He's at a Macintosh workshop when I call, but he'll be home in an hour. What's more, he's delighted to hear I'm pruning fruit trees because he needs some help with his fruit trees--apricot, apple, pear. When I was a kid, we also had loquat, miniature orange, and two kinds of plum.

I have only vague ideas about where I am when I start out in Santa Clara, but having grown up in this area, I find my way intuitively without getting on the freeway. It takes me 30 minutes to reach my childhood home.

Here it is: the house where I grew up.


A neighbor told us the house went up in one day in 1970. My dad bought it in 1973 and he's lived there ever since. He's not home and I don't have a key. I hop the fence into the backyard.

My dad's got a thing for trains. These narrow-gauge train tracks circle the house, cross trestles, pass through tunnels and exert their trainy charm on all who are susceptible to it.




Dad's got his work cut out for him getting this place in shape for his summertime train club get-togethers. A bunch of old geezers come over to drink beer and watch the trains roll. The next weekend, they do it at another guy's house.

The garden's gone to pot. The pond is empty and oxalis is the key planting.

The people dad bought the house from did a lot of interesting landscaping during the few years they lived here.


Lots of paths, raised beds, big trees, interesting lines and textures. Most of it is lost, but no doubt my immersion in this backyard affected me deeply. This was a happy place during my childhood.

This sedum under the leaves is at least 34 years old.


As is this bamboo and that birdhouse.


And whatever that dark green shrub is. I've never liked it.


I can see why he needs help with the apricot tree. What a mess!


He's still not home, so I go for a walk.

Our house was always special. The rest of the neighborhood looks like this.


For miles.

That cortaderia's been here forever. I remember playing in it as a little kid.


Despite the recent cold weather, everyone's citrus looks fine.



This house has been this color since I started walking to school in 1974.


It looked cute in 1974. Now it's just shabby.

Tucked in between the banality, interesting signs of horticultural life.



A lonely Nolina.


Hedges are the main thing.




And long fences.


This picture speaks one million cruel words about the suburban landscaping mind:


Look what's growing next to the bricks...Feijoa sellowiana. The pineapple guava that grows so well in San Francisco.


My dad calls to tell me he's home. On the way back to his place, I walk through my old elementary school.


The kickball diamond--a site of much humiliation.


This is cool.



I have a John Cage moment.

My dad's new best friend, Mr. Bojangles. Dad's girlfriend found him and brought him here. He's a sweetheart.

(Note: This is my "here kitty, kitty" voice; not my normal speaking voice.)

Inside, I'm reminded of why I don't visit very often. A bachelor with manic-depressive tendencies and an artist's temperament equals chaos.

And fabulous taste in furniture.




Wait, what's that? Apparently my dad carved Dorothy Gale's house out of wood "a long time ago". But since I have never seen this before today I am skeptical about the "a long time ago" part.

It's kind of scary that we both know Dorothy's last name is Gale.

He's a wood-carver my dad.

He carved the Nautilis from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It has lights and a motor and everything.


It was his favorite movie from childhood.


The Adam and Eve bookcase always makes me smile.


Please don't ask me why he painted the wood paneling blue. Some questions cannot be answered.

He had a stained glass phase in the 1970s.


But mostly he's a photographer. These are the hills just two miles out of town.



We drink coffee and talk. He videotapes me pruning his fruit trees. He actually directs me pruning his fruit trees. "Let me focus in on that branch and then you come in and talk about it." Ugh. I try to get through it as best I can, and I'm on my way.

I take Highway 280 home.

Along the way I stop at a couple rest stops.

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California's Missions are carved into the base of the Father Junipero Serra statue. I spot two of my favorites.

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I wish I could take you to San Juan Capistrano. But I visit Orange County even less often than I visit Santa Clara County.


Christopher C. in Hawaii said...

So very many places to land a comment on.

I am glad the school didn't leave Hawaii out of it's chalk outline. The layout of the islands are not right though, close.

Next week please get a better shot of Mr. Prune, you've wet my appetite.

It seems you have bittersweet memories of the garden and place of your formative years. It is good that you can visit and talk with your Dad after reading your pithy statement about your typical San Francisco story.

You now have me addicted to these videos.

chuck b. said...

I'll be posting more videos. Better ones, I hope. I have to use low-res to keep the files small enough to upload to YouTube. Also, I have to find out where the microphone is on my camera so my handling the camera doesn't make such an obnoxious racket!

chuck b. said...

And I'm afraid there will be no more pictures of Mr. Prune. He's not teaching the second half of the class. I fear I shall never see him again.

Christopher C. in Hawaii said...

I'd suggest you call Mr. PruneIt for a consultation on your neighbor's yard. See if you can get him a cleanup job there.

sixty-five said...

What an interesting post! I share your appreciation for Ocean and Althouse which is how I found you. Glad I did!

Annie in Austin said...

It's too late to say anything more coherent than, "Wow!". And say that I have a Pineapple Guava and a Pomegranate. And a decorative plate with Dorothy and her friends hangs over the sink, so I love that little Gale house. And my computer desk looks almost as bad as your dad's. Plus, Philo & I bought our first house in 1973. Weird, huh?

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

chuck b. said...

Thanks for coming by, sixyt-five!

Annie, I'm thinking about getting a pineapple guava of my own. I really like the flower.

Jenn said...

I'll bet "Gross!" girl doesn't touch soil because she might get worms. Ewwww!

I like your dad's train layout. It's cool.

christin m p in massachusetts said...

Yeah -- Mr. Prune is awfully cute. Must play for the other team too -- all the cutest ones do it seems. Just a little too materialistic, though -- a truck would've made more sense than a Beamer.

chuck b. said...

I don't want to speculate too much about my pruning teacher's sexuality (it's rude, right?), but I will say, imo, the whole gay/straight thing is so tired. But maybe that's just the San Francisco talking.

Jenn: lol!

lisa said...

As always, I enjoyed the tour! I really like your dad's photos...rather Ansel Adams-ish. That blue house is pretty awful though-maybe some kids will spray on grafitti (sp?) and force a new paint job. I'm always amazed to see the difference in housing costs between CA and the midwest, too! Sure, you have all that nice sunshine, but those $800,000.00 houses would go for $60,000.00 around here...crazy!

your fan in seattle said...

Chuck, we miss you! More pictures and stories, please.

chuck b. said...

Dear fan, If this is the last post you're seeing when you visit my blog, I think you may have to empty your Internet browser cache. This happens to me all the time when I visit blogs. Look under Tools or Help in your browser file menu.

fan said...


kirsten said...


I need to meet your dad... and mr. bojangles. Anyone who has a sweet couch like that AND a train in his backyard is someone I'd like to know

You don't need to be there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your observations