Toolshed 13


Three Legs to Stand On

RAISING TREE FRUIT gives one a different perspective on gardening. My three oldest apple trees, a ‘Chenango Strawberry’, a ‘Porter’, and a ‘Stayman Winesap’, were not grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks. Left un-pruned they would reach 30 feet or more. To prevent this, and to provide the abundance of sun and air necessary for good fruit color and health, I climb into their crowns every spring with a pruning saw. Between cutting out branches and water sprouts, I can’t help admiring the bird’s-eye view of the landscape that my perch affords.

It’s a view well known to the young who climb trees or to adults piloting hot-air balloons, hang gliders, and ultralight aircraft. But I am no longer young enough to swing through tree branches with ease, and the wonders of looking down from low-flying craft are offset by worries of a premature landing. Which is why, when a fellow editor asked what was on my horticultural wish list for the new year, I immediately replied, “A new orchard ladder.”


I’d been dropping hints for years, but ladders aren’t the sort of present that’s easy to gift wrap, or even to ship for that matter. And yet a ladder is something every gardener could use. Whether you have apple trees to prune and fruit to pick or not, you can’t get through the gardening year without repeatedly wishing that you were at least a little taller, if not downright giraffe-like.

Most homeowners already have some sort of ladder. But these are usually the stepladder type. These folding, four-legged ladders that lock open in a fixed position are excellent for getting things off of a top shelf. But they aren’t designed for outdoor use, where uneven ground replaces a smooth floor. Invariably one leg is left unsupported, making the ladder perilously tippy.

The other common option, the straight, two-legged ladder, whether of a fixed length or the extension type, is no better for use in the garden. Here the problem is not finding steady footing for the legs, but finding something to rest the top securely against. These ladders were designed to lean against the hard, smooth wall of a house, not the rounded trunk of a tree or the soft side of a hedge.


Some straight ladders were designed for tree work. They tend to be narrow and somewhat tapered. The closed-topped ones end in a point intended to fit in the crotch of a branch. I have an old one built for apple picking, which came with the farm, but it is missing its first, second, and fifth rungs and is too rickety to invite climbing.

The very best ladders for landscape work, however, are three-legged, or tripod, orchard ladders. These are the ones that you so often see hung on landscapers’ trucks. One side resembles a stepladder; the side rails flare so that the feet end up far apart. Hinged to the top is a pole-like third leg. Regardless of the irregularity of the ground, it is possible to position the tripod in such a way that the ladder can be safely climbed.

Both straight and tripod orchard ladders are still made of wood, but aluminum is a more popular choice. Yes, the metal conducts electricity (not that wooden ladders should be used near power lines either), but aluminum is much lighter than wood, and vastly more decay resistant.


The ladder that I will use this spring is a 10-foot aluminum tripod model. It is nearly four feet wide at its base, yet still only weighs 26 pounds. A six-inch length of aluminum has been inserted inside one side rail at the balance point to make it comfortable to carry the ladder on one hand or shoulder.

This ladder features a few recent innovations. Each of the three legs has been capped with a rubber foot, which allows me to use the ladder on brick or other hard surfaces. The rubber reduces the chance of the third leg slipping away and pancaking the ladder and user. There is also a Y-shaped lanyard of steel cable that I can clip to an eye-bolt on the third leg.

There’s a red step located three down from the top. This is to remind me that, although this is a 10-foot ladder, the highest point at which I am supposed to stand is six feet, seven inches. I can stand on the very top if I insist. The ladder will support me. But I will have entered the risk zone of circus performers and other aerialists.

The final feature of this particular ladder is a telescoping third leg. A smaller tube sliding inside a larger allows the leg to be extended or contracted and then safely pinned in a chosen position. For one thing, this allows the ladder to be used on particularly uneven ground. The third leg can be set on a raised planter while the other two are still on the patio, or vice versa. And by shortening the third leg, you have an easier time lifting it over low branches when positioning the ladder for tree work. Once you have cleared the obstruction, it’s a simple matter to extend the leg and pin it before you begin to climb.

I admit to being in love with this ladder. It does everything I could wish. Sure I’ve felt this way before. It’s the feeling you get from any garden tool beautifully suited to the task. It may be called an orchard ladder, it may even say on the label that it is “only for orchard use.”

But it seems to me it’s destined for pruning high hedges, too, and for pollarding catalpa trees, filling bird feeders, reaching bunches of wild grapes, stringing holiday lights on the spruces across the road. Together this ladder and I are going places I’ve never been before. H

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