A Gardening Journal

Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: The Higher Ladder for The Hardy Orange



As soon as the leaves have fallen, it's high time for pruning the hedges & espaliers, pollards & coppices—and, below, my topiary of hardy orange. Twenty-five years ago, my goal was just to form a standard: A sphere atop a trunk. The tree showed no sign of topping out, though, so I let a central stem lengthen. Soon I had created a second sphere above the first. Still the tree hadn't topped out—but, with just an eight-foot stepladder, I had. The bottom of the third sphere could begin over fourteen feet above ground, but a still-taller stepladder wasn't the answer.


Instead, I purchased the orchard ladder at the left. As shown in the picture below, these have only three legs. For stability, the width of any traditional stepladder increases along with the ladder's height. And so, while the front of a stepladder remains out in front of whatever is being pruned, it becomes less and less possible to maneuver that wider-and-wider pair of back legs close enough. An orchard ladder omits the back legs in favor of a single central pole, which can be inserted right through dense low-level growth.


But three legs aren't as stable as four. To keep your center of gravity directly over that lone pole, the steps of an orchard ladder narrow dramatically toward the top. For more bracing, they widen dramatically at the bottom. The eight-foot ladder is just over a foot wide at the top and two feet wide at the bottom. The twelve-foot orchard ladder is only eleven inches wide at the top, but four feet wide at the base.




This bird perches comfortably on the top step. I'd only be safe if my feet were no higher than the fourth step down—or even the third: The ferociously sharp and absolutely rigid thorns of Poncirus trifoliata require that any close encounters be slow and thoughtful to avoid painful and bloody punctures. That same care and diligence increases safety on any ladder, as does having purchased the tall enough version of the right kind of ladder.




The third sphere will be formed from the stem just to the right of the wooden training stake. Apart from the dangers of blood loss and even outright crucifixion in the event of a full-body tumble down onto the orange's merciless growth, the species is as cooperative as can be about being topiaried. It branches readily from even drastic cuts, and it produces plenty of lower stems that angle down, so there's always enough growth to fill out the bottom curve of a sphere. In just two or three years, then, this third sphere will be complete.


But what if the tree has still not reached its ultimate height, and eager vertical shoots arise from the top of the third sphere? Should I create a fourth?


It's customary for each successive sphere to be a bit smaller, but there's no rule that the interval of trunk between each successive pair of spheres must be shorter. When freshly pruned, the bottom sphere is about four feet across, so I could allow the second to be about three, and the third about two. Since the bottom of the third sphere will be just over fourteen feet high, and I'm allowing two feet for the intervening lengths of trunk, the bottom of the fourth will be 14 + 2 + 2 = 18 feet above ground. I'm 6' 3", and I would stand no higher than about two feet below the top of the ladder, while working with my hands no higher than about head-high. From this twelve-foot ladder, I'll be able to handle pruning that is 12 - 2 + 6 = 16 feet high. That's just four feet higher than the ladder itself but, happily, that would also be the top of the third sphere.


If I wanted to create a fourth sphere, I'd need a still-taller orchard ladder. Let's say that the fourth sphere is just a foot in diameter. Its top would therefore be 18 + 1 = 19 feet high. Generalizing from above: If I'm able to stand no higher than two feet below the top of any ladder, and work no higher than my head, then the ceiling of my reach is the ladder height - two feet + four feet. To prune nineteen feet high, I'd need a ladder that was 19 - 4 = 15 feet tall. Orchard ladders come in two-foot increments, which means I'd need a sixteen-footer.


And—hooray!—that height is available. In three years, then, we'll see if I can balance the temptation to have a "four ball" Poncirus topiary with the high price for the ladder needed to create and maintain it: Four hundred dollars and more. The twelve-footer itself was $313.44. In for a penny, in for a pound? If climbing and pruning at fourteen feet are no problem, why not the same at nineteen?


Over twenty-five years of this tree's topiary-hood, I've purchased an eight-foot stepladder as well as a portable platform that's just two feet high. With this current orchard ladder, my total cost for "elevation equipment" is about $450. If the topiary were to become four-balled—and nearly twenty feet high—that equipment cost could double.


Is $900 too much if the result is, surely, the tallest and most eccentric hardy-orange topiary in North America? By then, it will have been in training over thirty years, which means that I would have spent just $30 a year for equipment. $30 annually for a high-as-possible topiary of hardy orange sounds like a bargain—especially as the cost would decrease with each additional year. Orchard ladders aren't available taller than sixteen feet, so there couldn't be a fifth sphere because there isn't the twenty-foot ladder needed to handle it. In forty years, then, the annual equpment cost of a four-baller hardy orange would be down to $22.50.


How could I not create it? If the tree is willing, so am I.


Here's how to grow hardy orange. The pruning strategies I recommend in the link maximize the amount of time in each year that the shrub has a tidy shape—but also mean that the best show of flowers and fruit will be every other year.

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