Mud Season Chores: Pruning

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Mud season, despite its fickle weather, not only has color, but its own set of gardening chores. For those of us living in cold climates, these chores anticipate the growth that will soon come as so many plants emerge from dormancy. Growth is so slow at the beginning of mud season that it is easy to think there will be plenty of time to get this work done. But as I’ve learned the hard way, a couple of warm days after a rainy spell can result in inches of growth on plants that were totally dormant before the rain. Completing these chores in a timely manner saves a lot of aggravation later on. In the case of pruning, in many instances it is the only time to perform this task without adversely affecting the health of the plant.

Fruit Tree Pruning

Fruit trees are the very first pruning chore that should be attended to. It is very important to prune fruit trees before they show any sign of spring growth. In fact, Wayne Winterrowd and Joe Eck, in A Year at North Hill: Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden believe February is the ideal time to prune fruit trees. If there is a sunny spell in February where the temperatures rise into the 40sF, that chore might get done here in Purdyville at that time. But usually it is not until the onset of mud season that temperatures have moderated enough that we are willing to face this chore, and sometimes it isn’t finished until April.

Pruning shrubs

Margaret Roach advises pruning spring flowering shrubs right after they’re done blooming. This is the standard advice, and works well—if you can follow it.

Rejuvenate older shrubs by removing one-third of the thickest limbs, cutting them as close to the ground as possible.

Rejuvenate older shrubs by removing one-third of the thickest limbs, cutting them as close to the ground as possible.

I belong to another school of pruning, that believes the best time to prune—best for the shrub, that is—is during mud season, before buds have swollen and show green. The shrub (or tree, for that matter) has to use energy to grow leaves and flowers. If you cut away improper and excess branches before the shrub has expended that energy, it can direct its springtime vigor into making the new growth that you do want. Yes, you will lose some flowers by doing so. But if you are thinning branches by cutting them back to the parent branch, or to ground level, and leaving other branches alone, you won’t be eliminating all the flowers.

Another reason I don’t prune spring-flowering shrubs right after blooming is it is a very busy time in the garden. It seems like everything needs doing then, and should have been done yesterday. I have more time to devote to pruning during mud season and I can see the structure of the shrub very clearly. Knowing that it doesn’t hurt the shrub to prune it so early makes it easy for me to give up a few blooms for one season to gain a plant with better health and looks for the long haul.

Quite often, when people lose a whole season’s bloom to improperly timed pruning, they are also using improper methods. Most flowering shrubs should not have a little bit snipped off the end of each branch, trimmed as you would a hedge. It is better to remove entire branches when the shrub gets too congested. Suckering shrubs, such as lilac, forsythia, and mockorange benefit from having the thickest branches cut to the ground every year. The most important thing is to think like a plant, understanding its growth and blooming pattern before picking up your secateurs.

Pruning to solve problems

Sometimes you need to prune to correct mistakes of judgment or planning.

This lilac hedge was blocking the view of the road from our driveway.

This lilac hedge was blocking the view of the road from our driveway.

We have a lilac hedge that shelters our yard from the road. Each year it has gotten a little thicker as it sends out suckers, and those suckers mature and become flowering wood. This is what we wanted to happen—up to a point.

Last summer we realized that the lilacs had grown so close to the road that they were starting to block our view of approaching traffic as we pulled out of the driveway. They were also making it difficult to mow the lawn. Many of these lilac suckers had gotten rather thick, so I asked one of my teenaged sons to cut them down.

Now that the leaning branches have been removed, we have a clear view of oncoming traffic. Note the neighbors' mailbox which was not visible before the hedge was pruned.

Now that the leaning branches have been removed, we have a clear view of oncoming traffic. Note the neighbors' mailbox, which was not visible before the hedge was pruned.

In this case, it would make no sense to wait until after these branches had bloomed. They needed to come out because they were a safety hazard. In the future, I need to monitor this area every spring, and cut out the suckers before they actually block the view.

Pruning For Color

These native red twig dogwoods grow wild on our land.

These native red twig dogwoods grow wild on our land.

The red twig or red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) grows wild on our land. Selected forms are sold as landscape plants, but that is a bit like bringing coal to Newcastle. Gardeners are advised to cut down older stems of the cultivated forms, because the new growth has the most vivid color. This year I am cutting down all the thick stems on several of these shrubby dogwoods that are visible from the house, the road, or certain key spots on our network of trails. It will be interesting to see if the wild stems are as vivid as the cultivated ones.

Many of my shrubs have spring-flowering bulbs or early-emerging perennials planted under them, so it’s best to do the pruning as soon as possible to avoid stepping on tender growth. Unlike weeding, pruning can be done while there is still snow on the ground, so it’s a great project for the cold climate gardener anxious to get out of the house and “do something” on the first nice day.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

. . . the difference between great daffodils and common ones is not so vast as one thinks in the first flush of excitement when one starts being serious about daffodils.

~Henry Mitchell in The Essential Earthman: Henry Mitchell on Gardening

14 Comments… add one

Marilyn May 21, 2013, 9:54 pm

Our evergreen shrubs are too big. Will it kill them to take off every bit of green and take everything down to the main trunk?

Kathy Purdy May 21, 2013, 10:10 pm

I am not an expert on evergreen shrubs. I have read that you can do this with yews, but it is not a guaranteed thing. I would take pictures of them (so they can be identified) and bring them to your cooperative extension service and ask them

Benjamin April 5, 2009, 2:02 pm

I hit my river birch a bit too late and had some minor sap flow, but I also know that ain’t gonna kill them or anything. I’ve read horror stories about people mis-pruning their fruit trees, especially crabapples, and the lively water sprouts they get. I’m hesitant to cut back my dogwoods (Isanti) because they grow so slow anyway. Anyway, fun to hear an expert, and know I’m doing some things right in my 2nd year.

Benjamin’s last blog post..Dr. Me

Kathy Purdy April 6, 2009, 1:17 pm

If I’m an expert, I’m a self-educated, learn-from-my-mistakes expert. I’m glad you found some reassurance from my post.

rosemarie March 28, 2009, 7:17 pm

Great information on pruning – thanks so much. I had thought about pruning my Judd Viburnum’s last Fall but didn’t have time and was going to wait until after the bloom, but now I can probably do it (I’m in Zone 5).

Lynn March 24, 2009, 8:40 pm

p.s. thanks for ID-ing red twig dogwood. It grows in the fields around us and I wondered what it was. The red is really striking. I wonder if it would transplant to the side of my ditch?!

Lynn March 24, 2009, 8:39 pm

Sigh, I’d be out pruning if we had anything to prune. Took care of the one lilac early last summer after reading Margaret’s post. What is your opinion about chopped up leaf mulch put in the beds for winter? I’ve been pulling it back from plants that keep their leaves, ones starting to put out growth, and bulbs I find coming up. Does it matter? I don’t want to smother anything. Thanks for the mud season primer.

TC March 23, 2009, 5:18 pm

Why’d I have to read this now? Okay, okay, I’ll go do some pruning.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter March 23, 2009, 10:37 am

I completely agree with your methods. It is so much easier to figure out what to cut without leaves in the way. I prune everything during the winter or during “mud season,” except for the bleeders such as the Cladrastis kentukea. I hadn’t thought about the benefits to the plants from early pruning. Thanks for making me feel better about it.

commonweeder March 23, 2009, 10:15 am

The snow has melted enough so that I can finally get out to my fruit trees . When I can leave my daughter and her broken ankle later this week, the first thing I am going to do is prune.

Helen @ Gardening With Confidence March 22, 2009, 10:18 pm

Well done! I think we can get too caught up in the lost of some bloom, that we harm the whole. But when dispensing general guidance as I do in my blog, we tend to just to stay generalists.

As I put in my weekly journal, “I severely pruned the red twig dogwood” Not only was it getting wrangly, it had too much old growth – meaning loss of the red color. Why grow it if not for the red color?

At the JC Raulston Arboretum’s Winter Garden, I just pruned theirs too. Hard to do, but necessary.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens March 22, 2009, 9:43 pm

I did some pruning yesterday. My apple tree and crabapple tree are both starting to bud out, meaning it is too late to cut them back. I may still do some selective and careful pruning.

Also, I like to cut back some of the spirea all the way down to the ground every few years to keep them from being too overgrown. Of course, I have to wait that first year for them to grow back from the ground…

Anyway, you’ve shown once again that pruning is not as straight forward as everyone would like it to be. There are some general guidelines, but also other contributing factors… safety, how much time we have, etc. that make it not so easy to have just one rule.

Yvonne Cunnington March 22, 2009, 8:43 pm

I’m looking forward to getting out to prune my young trees, shrubs and crap apples , but still waiting for a nicer weather. It’s coming this week. I agree with you: pruning at this time of year is easier because you really do see the architecture of the plant.

Cindy, MCOK March 22, 2009, 8:28 pm

Kathy, some of your advice actually applies to me here in Zone 9! You confirm a long held suspicion of mine about spring-blooming shrubs. I’d rather sacrifice a few blooms for the sake of a better looking & healthier plant!

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