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.
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.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.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.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 ColorThe 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.