Late winter pruning: The perfect antidote for cabin fever

Late winter is cabin fever season; after months of indoor living we find ourselves yearning for spring, and we can surely be forgiven for grumbling about Vermont’s recent March blizzard.
Wikipedia describes cabin fever as “a claustrophobic reaction from being confined in a small space for an extended period of time, resulting in extreme irritability and restlessness, often accompanied by an urge to go outside, even in rain, snow, dark or hail.” I certainly understand the urge to get outdoors, but I prefer to skip the rain, dark and hail.
And, as a therapy for cabin fever, Wikipedia cites a scientific study which shows that simply getting outside and interacting with nature will improve both your cognitive abilities and your sense of wellbeing. But of course this is probably something you intuitively knew already.
So, if you are a gardener beset by cabin fever, may I suggest the perfect antidote: unearth your pruning saw, sharpen those clippers, and get going on some late winter pruning.
Even though we humans are now eagerly anticipating spring, in late March in Vermont, most of our trees and shrubs are still fully dormant, making this an excellent time for pruning. Pruning stimulates new growth which will kick into high gear the moment spring arrives. And without its leaves, the structure of the plant is readily apparent, making pruning that much easier for the gardener.
Pruning is defined as the removal of any part of a plant to promote plant health and a desirable growth form. And it certainly covers a host of specialized goals and techniques, from training young trees for long-term form and enhancing fruit production, to creating bonsai.
   Our wild apple trees, pruned to perfection by Fred Schroeder, and in the distance Mount Moosalamoo glows in the evening sunlight.
Photo/Dick Conrad
However the goal of my late winter pruning is simply to ensure my existing shrubs and small trees continue to thrive and look great in the garden. And the techniques are not difficult.
I work with one tree or shrub at a time and, before making a single cut, I stand back and examine it carefully. I will look for limbs broken off by last January’s ice storm, as well as wood that looks old or diseased. I will also survey the interior of the plant, which may have become cluttered over the years.
With my first cuts I remove any branches that are broken, dead, diseased or really old, each time cutting all the way back to the trunk or a strong live branch or, in the case of suckering shrubs, right to the ground. These are called thinning cuts.
When making a thinning cut it is important never to leave a protruding stub; it will eventually die and in the meantime it creates an entryway for disease. Furthermore it just looks plain ugly.
At the same time take care not to cut too close the parent branch. Locate the “branch collar,” the ridge of bark at the junction between the side branch and the trunk, which is an active growth site. By making your cut just outside the branch collar it will stimulate it to grow new bark which will quickly grow over and heal the wound.
Next I look for branches that are rubbing their neighbors, or will become that way in another year or two. Rubbing branches also create entry points for disease, and their contrary directions spoil the aesthetics of the plant. So, for the good of the whole, I will sacrifice one.
I now stand back again, and contemplate whether, by removing a few healthy branches, I could achieve a less cluttered interior. However I am careful not to overplay my hand. To ensure the plant continues to manufacture sufficient food, two-thirds of the leaf-bearing surfaces need to remain after pruning.
Finally I look to see whether the plant would look better if it were slightly more compact. If the answer is “yes” I trim back the outermost branches, using what are known as a heading cut. I make this cut just above a robust outward-growing bud, which in turn will become a new growth point in the coming season. So, before cutting, I pause to visualize how the plant will look, a year or two from now, when these growth buds have become new twigs or even complete branches.
Pruning large trees is heavy work which is best left for an expert. However, even when you call in somebody else, it is extremely helpful if you can visualize the desired results — after all it’s your garden!
For many seasons now Fred Schroeder of Bristol, who specializes in apple tree pruning, has been pruning my apple trees, but he involves me in all the major decisions of how much to remove and what to trim.
With careful pruning over several years Schroeder has gradually rejuvenated our duo of wild apple trees (pictured).
And finally, there are some pruning jobs that should be left till later:
In late winter the sap is running full bore in our maple and birch trees, and pruning them now would cause excessive bleeding. Instead prune them during the summer or in the early part of the winter.
Spring flowering shrubs, like azaleas and lilacs, set their flower buds the previous summer. To avoid sacrificing any blooms this coming spring, plan on pruning these shrubs a month or less after they have flowered (before next years buds have formed).
Conifers are best pruned after the first flush of new spring growth.
Roses should be pruned when the first green buds emerge in spring, when you can easily see and remove any winter die-back.
I love pruning and I am always eager to learn more. So, one snowy afternoon a few years back, I joined a group of professionals for a pruning workshop in Shelburne at South Forty nursery — wholesale growers of ornamental trees and flowering shrubs.
Each day, from January to late March, South Forty’s arborist, VJ Comai, is out pruning his neat rows of young plants, and by the time or our visit in mid-March he had nearly completed his entire stock.
He demonstrated his technique for pruning a five-year-old crab apple for us. Using thinning cuts, he quickly skimmed the entire upper surface of each main branch, removing all the small internal branches at the precise spot where they joined the parent.
He then turned his attention to the tree’s outer branches. Young trees make extensive annual growth at the branch ends which, left unchecked, will result in an ungainly tree. So, using heading cuts, Comai removed half or more of the previous season’s growth, makes his cuts at outward facing buds.
The result was a beautifully shaped tree destined for a lucky gardener. We all then repaired to Comai’s sugaring operation, to warm up and watch as he recycled his all pruning clippings to feed the fire under his evaporator.
“Pruning Made Easy,” by Lewis Hill (Story Publishing) is a classic book on pruning written by a well-known Vermonter. With clear instructions and great illustrations it is an excellent investment for every gardener. And, although published almost 20 years ago now, I was delighted to find it is still available today.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photos at www.northcountryimpressions.com.

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