Pruners in hand, two women trim greenery growing in three horizontal rows across the south side of Holy Family Catholic Church in Davenport.
Mary Kay Beck and Donna Brinker are undoubtedly two of the few — the only? — gardeners in the Quad-Cities actively engaged in the practice of espalier.
Espalier, a French word pronounced ess-PAL-yay, describes a pruning practice that fashions fruit trees, vines or flowering shrubs into artistic, two-dimensional forms by training the plants to grow flat against a support such as a wall or fence.
The greenery growing against Holy Family is actually one — one! — apple tree whose branches were trained since it was little to grow horizontally by attaching them with nylon ties to horizontal wires affixed to the church, Beck explained.
The first branch, she said, went right and the second went left. Buds shooting toward the front or rear were removed, leaving only horizontal survivors. As the next branches got to sufficient height, they too, were trained to go right, then left and so forth until there were three rows. At that point, subsequent branches were pruned off.
And as the branches grew across the wire, they too were trimmed, keeping them flat against the wall and leaving space between the rows, Beck explained.
In time, the supporting ties and wires were removed because the branches stayed in place by themselves.
Why would someone do this?
For several reasons. With fruit, the technique allows one to grow trees in a very small space that also makes maximum use of sunlight. The training also keeps trees at a height that allows for easy harvesting and mowing and it utilizes growing space while adding ornamental interest.
OK. But who would do this?
In the case of Holy Family, it was the Rev. Msgr. Michael Morrissey, who served as the church's pastor from 2000-08, and who had an abiding interest in plants, particularly trees.
Beck guesses the trees — two others grow against the wall of the church's boiler building — were planted toward the end of Morrissey's time at Holy Family. He died of cancer in 2016; most of his priestly service was in diocesan administration.
For awhile, Beck said, the trees weren't closely attended, and they began to grow together so that the rows lacked definition. Then, noting the need, volunteers decided to resume pruning and the rows became visible once more.
The trees are an attractive and unusual landscape feature of the parish. Morrissey would no doubt be pleased.