Pruning in winter -or whenever

This Liberty apple is young and has a nice open growth habit.

This Liberty apple is young and has a nice open growth habit.

When do you prune? The best time to prune trees, shrubs, and rosebushes is when they are dormant, in winter. That being said, you prune when you can. It is better to prune at the wrong time than not prune at all. You prune for a lot of reasons. Pruning keeps plants from getting bigger than we want them to, and it alters their growing habit . You can trim a plant back so it gets more growing points, like the mythical Hydra, which makes it bushier and fuller. You can remove weaker branches to make the plant direct its energy into stronger, more desirable branches. You can prune to open up the structure of the plant to ventilation so that fungal diseases are less likely to thrive. pruning toolsI don’t think they mind being pruned; generally they respond with health and vigor, but pruning roses is like pruning playful cats. Wear clothes that can get ripped, wear heavy leather gloves, start with long loppers,and mind your face. knockout rosesTo whit, I prune my red Knockout roses down hard, to about 1/3 of their summer size, because they are a bit large for the bed I have them in, and because I want lots of new shoots for big bunches of roses.  And while Knockout is a very disease resistant and trouble free rose, selectively opening up the structure of the bush by removing twiggy growth, inward growing growth, and canes with too many closely spaced twigs on them can’t hurt. I prune my climbing Westerfield rose to shape it, control it- ha!- and try to keep the canes from falling over when they are heavy with big, fragrant orange roses. (Correction for my earlier remark about cats- pruning ramblers like Climbing Westerfield is like playing with a nervous tiger. Unless you are very careful you will get hurt.) It is attached to a trellis I made 2 years ago out of black willow prunings, which holds it up against the house. The trellis is rotted and falling apart, so I will be cutting the Westerfield back a little harder this year so I can remove the old trellis and put in a new one. Of course this means I also need to prune the willows, which I whack to the ground every 2-3 years so I will have usable willow branches for basket work. After I have taken away the bulk of the pruning I will clean things up with a smaller pair of clippers. Now I can clip, rake, weed and mulch. I get free mulch from the utility guys who trim the trees along the roadsides. They are delighted to have a free place to drop off their wood chips as long as it is close by, so I stop and tell them where I live when I see them trimming within a few miles of my house. It is important to remember that those heavy trucks can’t drive off of paved roads without getting stuck unless the ground is hard and dry though. Also, bear in mind that wood chips from trees can carry tree pathogens, but I figure that the chips come from nearby  so whatever they may carry would get here anyway. They eventually rot down into a lovely humus which is good for amending the soil in shady beds where you are growing acid-loving plants. before pruning (10)I also need to prune fruit trees. This is very important for disease control and fruit bearing. I really care about fruit. The plums are so delicious, but they are a real pain in Maryland. Fruit trees here suffer from all kinds of problems, since our mild and humid climate is hospitable to insects and fungal diseases. If you have a healthy old tree, treasure it and propagate from it. Young trees need to be shaped. As bends the twig so grows the tree, right? I have two 5 year old trees I will enjoy pruning, because they are happy and healthy, and I have pruned them every year so they have a nice shape. I need to control height, so I can reach the fruit without a ladder, and I need to take out branches that interfere with airflow through the center of the tree. I will cut out all inward growing and crossing branches, and I will also look at how the shape is evolving, and decide if any major branches should come out, based on what they will look like eventually. Branches that look well spaced now will be crowded in a few years, and if we cut it out now the bark will heal quickly and no rot will start inside the tree. Look at the photos and see if you can imagine where the cuts should go before you look at the after pictures. Make clean cuts so they heal well. Don’t leave ragged bark hanging off the wood. Use good tools. Up to a third inch thick clippers work fine; after that loppers work up to an inch, and after that use a small saw like a pruning saw, or a sawsall, if you can control the cuts so they come out clean. I use a sawsall if I have a lot to do, but only on larger branches, since little branches just catch on the teeth and shake wildly. We don’t use tar on pruning cuts any more. The idea is that it traps moisture under the tar, so you can create a skin of tar with bugs or something underneath it. I trimmed and tarred the torn bark on a Coxes Orange Pippin I hit with a weed whacker, and it healed beautifully, so I am not convinced either way. For mature fruit trees you alternate years, taking out major wood one year and trimming back size the next. I have two Japanese plums; a Methley and a Santa Rosa. They are Satsuma types, which means they are red like cherries. They are so delicious- the juice, the jam, the plums in honey syrup in winter, the syrup over ice, maybe with a little wine- I am fighting for the plums. But the Santa Rosa has been dropping all its fruit for the past seven or eight years, so I only let it live for to pollinate the Methley. The Methley has a very nice spreading growth habit, and bears its smallish red fruit heavily along its twigs. Borer damageUnfortunately trunk borers have hit it, as evidenced by balls of clear sap drying on the trunk, and brown slime at the base with little bits of chewed up wood crumbs called frass in it. I have injected straight Neem, an organic tree extract, into the holes in the bark. I have run wires into the holes to try to kill the borers. I cleared the sod away from the trunk to about a foot and a half, dumped a bag of play sand around it, made a plastic tent/skirt around the bottom two feet of trunk and put mothballs in it. But they are back again this year. The tree does seem to be handling it so far. So this year I will thin out small twigs on the Methley to increase ventilation, since we have had Brown Rot the last 2 years (try Serenade, an organic fungicide based on Bacillus Subtilis) and so I can get my Surround in there (a kaolin clay emulsion which is a wonderful organic crop protectant).  The Santa Rosa I am going to cut back very hard, since it is really time I put in a new tree, but I still need my pollinator. before pruning (12)One of the trees I am pruning this week is a very healthy 5 year old sweet cherry. It has a slightly drooping growth habit, and the cherries have been small and miserable, which tells me that it needs a pollinator. I have honestly forgotten what kind it is, which is a bad mistake on my part. Bing, which it may be, needs a pollinator. I planted a Stella nearby, but it got run over by a lawn mower, so it is not as far along as it should be. Last year it seemed to bloom just a little too far behind the other one to be effective. It sure had nice cherries though, for its age. I probably won’t start shaping it this year because the bark hasn’t completely closed over the wounds, and it hasn’t branched out yet. I want it to have plenty of leaf area to gain strength. The Montmorency cherry, which is a sour pie cherry, should start producing this year. I love sour cherries! I also need to whack back the kiwi vines, just for the sake of control. I will cut off the weaker vines and the ones that are trying to get at the roses. I supposedly have three females and one male, but they all look pretty much alike. I thought the males had variegated foliage. If they don’t do something this year maybe I’ll buy another male. You would think they would have blossoms by now. I bought them almost 4 years ago and they are rampant. (NB_Yup, the male is no longer with us) I have a pomegranate! pomegranate (2)It grew quickly from a seed and seems quite happy. The blossoms are wildly orange and look like plastic. We had 2 fruits last year. It has a very twiggy, shrubby, prickly growth habit. It is about five feet tall, but I understand they get pretty big. So far I have thinned out twiggy growth around the base, to make it easier to weed. The leaves are small and don’t seem to keep the tree wet, otherwise I would worry, since it comes from a dry climate. My mother’s fig tree is full of honeysuckle and twiggy growth. I think we should cut it flat to the ground and start fresh. (NB I cut it off about 4 feet tall and removed oldest trunks and wimpy stems) This doesn’t hurt it; usually we have a hard freeze every 10 years and it freezes to the ground. We saw off all the dead trunks and it comes right back, only we miss the first crop of fruits (they fruit twice in a long season). Generally you want to remove weaker stems on a fig, and prevent it from getting too tall to pick from. A good fig tree is a real blessing. Basically, we prune for beauty and for usefulness, because health, beauty, and productivity are all one, but in the end, as the Little Prince said,  “C’est utile puisque c’est beau.” It’s useful because it’s beautiful.

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