Judith’s Garden: Late-winter pruning is the perfect antidote to cabin fever

Cabin fever hits us all in late winter: after months of indoor living we find ourselves yearning for spring, and we can surely be forgiven for grumbling about the heavy wet snows that come in March.
Cabin fever: “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.” That’s Wikipedia’s definition anyway.  
I know that I, for one, am longing to spend more time outdoors — although perhaps not in “rain or hail!”
Also, interestingly enough, a number of recent scientific studies have demonstrated that, by simply getting outside and interacting with nature your cognitive abilities and your sense of well-being will both improve.
But this is probably something you intuitively knew already.
Time to prune
So, if you are a gardener who is beset by cabin fever, may I suggest the perfect antidote: unearth your pruning saw, sharpen your clippers, and get going on some late winter pruning.
Even in March, as we humans are eagerly anticipating spring, most of our trees and shrubs are still fully dormant, making late winter an excellent time for pruning. Pruning stimulates the plant to create 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 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 structure and enhancing fruit production, to creating diminutive bonsai.
Usually the goal of my late winter pruning is simply to ensure that the existing shrubs and small trees in my garden will continue to thrive and look great; and the techniques are not difficult.
Easy does it
I work with one plant at a time and, before making a single cut, I stand back and examine it carefully. I look for old or diseased wood, and analyze whether the interior looks cluttered.
With my first cuts I remove all the branches that are dead, diseased or really old, each time cutting all the way back to 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 not to leave a protruding stub; it will eventually die and in the meantime it creates an entryway for disease. Furthermore, it doesn’t look so good. 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. The branch collar is also an active growth site so, by making your cut just outside it the collar, new bark will quickly grow over and heal the wound.
Pruning this large wild apple tree would be a daunting job for the homeowner. But, over several winters, Fred Schroeder of Bristol, who specializes in apple-tree pruning, gradually removed a number of interior branches to create the beautiful framework you see here. Photo by Dick Conrad
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.
Now I stand back again and contemplate whether, by removing a few healthy branches, I could achieve a less cluttered interior.
I am careful not to overplay my hand. During the coming growing season the plant needs to manufacture sufficient food in its leaves to carry it through next winter. So I make sure that at least 75 percent of all leaf-bearing branches remain after I have finished the job.
Finally, I look to see whether the plant would look better if it were slightly more compact. If the answer is yes, I gently trim back the outermost branches, using what are known as “heading cuts” — slicing across the twig just above a robust outward-growing bud.  In the coming season this remaining bud will become the leading growth point for that twig. So, again, before cutting, I pause to visualize how the plant will look, a year or two from now, when these leading buds have grown into new twigs or even complete branches.
What not to do
Some pruning jobs are best postponed until later in the season:
In late winter the sap is running full bore in both maple and birch trees, and pruning at this time will cause excessive bleeding. These types of trees are best pruned during the summer or in early winter. (However you should avoid pruning any woody plants between August and October; the new growth stimulated by late summer pruning will not be fully hardened before the onset of winter.)
Spring flowering shrubs, like azaleas and lilacs, set their flower buds the previous summer. To avoid sacrificing any blooms for the following season, prune them within a month of flowering.
Conifers are best pruned after the first flush of new spring growth.
Roses should be pruned after the first green buds emerge in spring, when you can easily see and remove any winter die-back.
Also pruning large trees is always best left for an expert. However, even when you call in somebody else, it is extremely helpful if you can both visualize and communicate your desired results — after all it’s your garden.
Visit a nursery
I love pruning and I am always eager to learn more. So a few years ago I joined a group of professionals for a March pruning workshop at the South Forty nursery in Shelburne where, at that time, they raised field-grown ornamental trees and flowering shrubs for sale in local garden centers. 
Since January South Forty’s arborist, VJ Comai, had been out every day pruning his neat rows of young plants, and by the time or our visit he had nearly completed his entire stock.
He demonstrated for us his technique for pruning a 5-year-old crab apple. Using thinning cuts, he quickly skimmed the entire upper surface of each main branch, removing all the small internal branches (often called water sprouts) 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 that, left unchecked, will result in an ungainly tree.  So, using heading cuts, Comai removed half or more of the previous season’s growth, making each cut at an outward facing bud.
The result was a beautifully shaped tree destined for a lucky gardener. We all then returned to Comai’s sugaring operation, to warm up and watch as he recycled his pruning wood into fuel.
To learn more
My favorite pruning book is “Pruning Made Easy” by Lewis Hill (Story Publishing). This classic book by a beloved Vermont author offers both clear instructions as well as great illustrations.
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 northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.com.

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