Horticulture in The Bible: Figs, Fruits, and Root-Pruning

In an age obsessed with blazing fast this’s and automatic that’s, it’s easy to get caught up in the how of information – Google can answer your every question 3.41 million times over in a 0.00135th of a second – rather than the depth and breadth of the information. We can forget that most of what’s known was known long before technology reduced our deepest thoughts to 140 characters. To bring a little depth and breadth back to our understanding of horticulture, and to snatch some of the credit back from Wikipedia and place it where it belongs, we present the Horticulture in The Bible series.

The Horticulture in The Bible series roots some of our contemporary understanding of horticultural practices and techniques in one of the earliest and most readily accessible books to speak on the subject – Gardening for Dummies. No, just kidding. The Bible, of course.

The Parable

Consider the Gospel of Luke, for example. Recording a lesson from Jesus of Nazareth from about the year 30 A.D., Luke writes,

…“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9, ESV).

While this passage has much to teach theologians, it also has a great lesson for gardeners: root-prune and fertilize your plants that aren’t flowering and fruiting.

The Problem

Superficially, the problem in this parable is the fruit tree that doesn’t bear fruit. The owner, not wanting to waste orchard space for unproductive trees, wants it removed. The gardener, however, suggests a horticultural technique that he believes will get the tree to bear fruit. He says that he will “dig around it and put on manure”.

Prune roots for better blooms (and figs)

The Solution

It’s probably well known that manure was and often still is used as a fertilizer. What is less known, however, is what it means to “dig around.” What the gardener was going to do to help the tree bear fruit was to use a technique called root-pruning. With his shovel, he was going to sever a percentage of the feeder roots. These finer roots that are found a few feet from the trunk of trees and shrubs are responsible for taking up the water and nutrients that plants need both to grow and to bloom (and then bear fruit). By cutting them, the gardener was forcing these roots to divide and multiply. Just as when we prune a tree’s branch it divides and produces two new twigs, so it is with the roots. This technique develops a finer and more dense root system which, therefore, is better able to take up more water and nutrients. Nutrients which the gardener added when he put down the manure.

For those of us without fig trees and orchards, how does this lesson help us today? Hydrangeas. Hydrangeas are one of the most popular shrubs on the market today. Along with any number of other flowering trees and shrubs, hydrangeas can lose their flowering vigor after a few years and sometimes will fail to bloom altogether. Do you have an azalea that will only produce a few flowers in the spring? A crabapple that’s all stick when it should be all pink? No need to Google it. Take a lesson from the Bible.

If you’d like more information on root-pruning, send me an email at andrew@freshstartenterprise.com and I’ll be happy to help.

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