March 11, 2009  
Pruning, Renovating and Protecting.

As we approach the vernal equinox in just nine days, the signal for most landscape caretakers, be they homeowners or employees, is that it's time to consider pruning and renovating your fruit trees and flowering shrubs, and treat for pests you had last year while you still have the control. And, you know, you're just itching to do something productive outdoors anyway.  

So, what's the difference between pruning and renovating? And, just what do you do about last year's pests now? I'll answer these questions in order.  

The pruning that most needs to be done in the coming weeks is the annual pruning of apples, pears, grapes, raspberries, blueberries and other small fruits. We do this now so that they will reward us for our efforts with larger, healthier, juicier, more colorful and nutritious fruit. This pruning is carried out while these plants are still dormant.  


This lace-leaf maple is such a fine specimen that careful attention must be paid to preserve its character and
still benefit its health and productiveness.

This annual affair is about removing specific plants parts to benefit the whole. It might also satisfy the owner's desires to achieve a particular form or shape. Remember espalier? In the case of young or newly planted trees, we prune mostly to train the youngster to develop a strong central leader and establish sturdy scaffold branches as near the horizontal as possible. Pruning for fruitfulness will come in a few years.  

In the case of established fruit plantings that receive a regular annual visit, the goal is to keep the interior open to light penetration and air flow. This will reduce the incidence of insect and fungal disease, and at the same time improve branch and fruit vigor. The primary reason we prune these is to renew fruit bearing wood. It's fruit that we want, and the best quality possible. Always plan ahead and choose a bright sunny day when air temperatures are above freezing. Make sure your tools are sharp and clean.  

I must mention that now is the favored time to prune because there are no active pathogens, so you can forget about infections if your plants are healthy. Because we are approaching the time when fruit plants will be breaking dormancy, the healing process will be speeded up and wounds will quickly callus over and heal. Finally, we have the best opportunity to see the plants without any foliage, making it much easier to visualize which cuts should be made where, in order to benefit the whole.  


Photo taken by Cadence Purdy 2006. This is an example of how not to prune you apple tree no matter how exuberant and fearless you might be, as Rundy clearly is. For more see

Renovating is a word usually reserved for older, sometimes neglected plants, and refers to restoration or bringing back overgrown plants to full flower and fruit production. Plants in this category might include but are not limited to lilac, azalea, rhododendron, mountain laurel, andromeda, big leaf hydrangea, forsythia, high bush blueberry, viburnum, and holly. Other shrubs that bloom on new (current year's) wood are the usual summer flowering plants and will produce even more abundant growth and blossoms next year. Yes, some sacrifice of blossoms this year is made, but the ideal conditions of moist soil, plant dormancy, and cool temperatures all favor this exercise now.  

The most frequently accepted approach of renovating is often referred to as the one-third pruning plan. Look at the plant and determine the oldest and thickest stems and remove one third of these as close to the ground as possible. You will usually be removing the tallest stems as well. Do this same thing the following year, and finally, repeat the third year. By this time you should observe strong vigorous growth replacing the older, more exhausted stems, and each subsequent year simply remove any older stems that suggest to you the overall plant vitality will be improved by its removal (normally a single stem or some smaller crossing ones).  

There is another method that suggests a more "ruthless" (the sentimental part of ourselves might say) approach and that is to cut the entire plant to within six inches of the ground. It is remarkable how the inner strength of healthy plants responds to this, and they are none-the-less for wear in their response.  

Finally, if any of your flowering and fruiting plants were bothered by insect pests the previous year, when the temperatures are expected to stay above 40 degrees F for a few days and nights or more, apply a dormant oil spray after all your pruning is finished, and you'll go a long way to protecting your plants from any dormant insects and mites and their eggs still on the remaining plant parts. It's time so well spent. And it gets you outdoors, too. A double win, eh?  

From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on March 11, 2009

© 2009 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.