Pruning your Japanese maple tree (and other zen absurdities of home ownership)

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“Did I just watch a video of you pruning a tree,” friend and fellow cat lady and writer Maeva Considine taunted my boyfriend on Facebook. “How much CSPAN are you watching these days?”

The answer to the CSPAN question, by the way, is none. But that doesn’t mean that Maeva didn’t have a point. Colin did post a timelapse video of the two of us pruning the Japanese maple tree in our front yard, which isn’t something I ever thought I would do and certainly isn’t something my boyfriend Colin thought he would do either.

It’s not that either of us has any ethical quandary with tree trimming. But who grows up thinking “one day I’m going to buy a house and prune the Japanese maple tree in my front yard?” Not me. And I’m gifted with an absurdly fertile and specific imagination and devoted most of my 20s to imagining my first home.

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It was my idea to attend the hour and a half seminar titled “Pruning Japanese Maples” at Swanson’s Nursery. Overwhelmed by my new responsibilities, and especially by my lack of knowledge on all matters related to these new responsibilities, I began looking up free classes and seminars. As it turns out, there are a number of free resources. Home Depot offers monthly classes on a range of subjects. Swanson’s Nursery offers regular classes on every subject from beekeeping to pruning your fruit tree. I saw the seminar title and it occurred to me that I have a Japanese maple that is somewhat newly my responsibility and I have no idea how to care for it. In fact, my plan was mostly to water it when the weather turns hot and otherwise leave it alone. My philosophy could be summed up as “the tree knows best.”

As it turns out, I probably could have left the Japanese maple alone and the worst that would happen is that it would have eventually resembled the hair of an ‘80s rocker. We also learned that it’s a little late in the season for pruning. Apparently, we should have cleaned away the dead leaves and twigs back in November or possibly December. But we chose a cloudy, overcast day—not that there’s any other kind in Seattle, really—which was the best chance of minimizing running sap, which apparently poses some sort of potential threat to the tree.

There are three levels to pruning a Japanese maple, we learned. The first, and easiest, is merely removing the dead leaves and twigs, easily identified by their brittle, gray bark. The second is going after branches that get in each other’s way and grow in the wrong direction (as subjectively determined by the tree’s caretaker). And the third and final level, which I wasn’t entirely certain we would get into on our young tree, was about directing the shape of the tree, something about directing the tree’s “growth energy” which sort of makes sense, and artfully revealing glimpses of the more attractive branches through gaps in the leaves. It turns out that Colin is a Japanese maple pruning fiend so we did, in fact, dive deep into a series of entirely subjective decisions about which branch would stay and which would go. And he took a timelapse, leading to the Facebook bullying.

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The reason this is all so unnerving is that Colin and I both proudly suffer from a severe case of Peter Pan syndrome. As in “If growing up means/ It would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree/ I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up/ Not me!” Yes, we’re both gainfully employed and we pay our own bills and our taxes, but that’s where any resemblance to respectable adulthood ends.

It was my thirty-second birthday on Sunday—the day after the pruning incident that earned Maeva’s mockery—and my high school friend Tasha texted me: “Happy Birthday Miss Thang…The most childish adult I know (and I mean that in a good way).” And I took that sentiment as an enormous compliment.

What has this house done to us?

We judge other people’s Japanese maples. Almost all of my birthday gifts were accessories for the house, and I was completely thrilled by that fact. I spend what little spare time I have trolling the Craigslist free section for furniture for the guest room. I have a guest room. Colin’s a little less terrified every time we visit the hardware store.

We always figured that as long as we avoided having kids we could sleep and write and read and travel and argue with our cats without interruption and only now, five months after buying our first house, has the enormity of what that means taken hold in my brain. We pruned a Japanese maple tree. And we’ll probably do it again, because I’m fairly confident that’s how this stuff works.

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