With Sukkot approaching, I’m here to let you know that you can easily cover your sukkah with schach (sukkah roof material) made with plants in your own landscape. There is an array of plants that grow in Southern Arizona that should be pruned in early fall — meaning now (especially after the abundant rainfall this summer). So you can read this article and plan your sukkah — and some yard work.
Before you prune, take a moment to remember that plants are living beings. You should avoid removing too much at one time. Prune off a maximum of 30 percent of a plant’s living body in a growing season. Leave 70 percent or more of the plant so it can remain healthy, fight off disease, and heal the wounded tissues.
Tools required for proper pruning by a homeowner are few. A high quality pair of hand clippers and a top quality lopper, and possibly a hand pruning saw, will be sufficient for all the pruning work you should be doing. No need for a chain saw unless you are an arborist or a lumberjack.
The old adage, “Buy cheap, buy twice,” is especially true when it comes to cutting tools. Get top quality. Quality tools are easier to use, making pruning less of a chore. Good tools make clean cuts, which are healthier for the plant. Good sharp tools also require less effort to operate and thus you are less likely to tire and injure yourself.
While many trees and shrubs should be pruned now, there are exceptions. Spring bloomers, like citrus, cassia, almonds, and apples should not be pruned now. If you planted fruit trees this spring, they require special training and pruning at specific times.
What to prune now? When it comes to making schach, the ideal plant and the ideal time to prune coincide. Palms should be pruned now — but only dead, brown leaves should be removed, not any of the green fronds. Over-pruning palms can lead to disease and death. Palm fronds were traditionally used for schach because they could not be used for firewood. They were cut off in fall so the flower buds developing in winter could be wind pollinated the following spring, unencumbered by old dead fronds.
Carob trees (Ceratonia siliqua), native to the Holy Land, grow well here and can be pruned now. Carob’s evergreen leaves make nice schach, and like palms, some pruning opens the area up for pollination. Carob is in the legume or pea family, and a number of its cousins are native to our area, like mesquite (Prosopis species), Mexican ebony (Havardia species), and Texas ebony (Ebanopsis ebano). These natives can also be pruned to provide a lovely leafy roof to your sukkah. If they are especially thorny, set the branches aside to drop their leaves for a healthy mulch for your other plants.
Olive (Olea europa), another Holy Land plant, can be pruned now. The straight branches that grow out of the bottom of the trunk, called watersprouts, especially should be removed. Shorter watersprouts can be woven in with other branches in your roof.
Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) is another Holy Land evergreen. The 20 years of drought in our area stressed them and made them susceptible to pine beetles, but if your tree is healthy, add a few pine boughs to make your schach fragrant. Otherwise, if the tree isn’t rubbing on the roof of your home or obstructing the walkway, there is no need to prune it.
Tall shrubs that bloom in summer, such as Texas ranger (Leucophyllum species) and turpentine bush (Ericameria laricifolia) can be pruned now and do not tend to shed leaves over the eight days a sukkah traditionally stands.
Many of the traditions surrounding Sukkot hardened into rules in the Diaspora, but if you go back in time, the idea was to get together and bring in the harvest. Harvest is hard work, but “many hands make light the work,” so extended families would come together in the fields and orchards for the occasion, building temporary housing with whatever was at hand. Harvest work happened during daylight, but the evening was for prayers of thanksgiving as well as laughter and tales while sharing the fruits of the harvest and celebrating the abundance.
Jacqueline Soule, Ph.D., has been writing about gardening in our region for over three decades. Her most recent book is “Month by Month Guide to Gardening in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico” (Cool Springs Press, 2016), a companion volume to “Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Gardening (Cool Springs Press, 2014).