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The Particulars of Pruning 

Planning spring gardens with shears and on paper

click to enlarge Pruning fruit trees during chilly-weather downtime. - SHUTTERSTOCK
  • Shutterstock
  • Pruning fruit trees during chilly-weather downtime.

With the mercury hovering in the frost zone, here on the home farm we're enjoying the rush of chilly temperatures. An essential but often overlooked element of successful home farming is the downtime of the winter months. We use this time to put up our feet and drink some hot homegrown tea by the fire. Long hours of darkness naturally lend themselves to extra sleep, which will fuel our rush into a gardening frenzy later this month at Spring Equinox. Last month brought our first snowfall in many years, and we were thrilled with all the neighborhood snowmen. The chilly days and nights continue and it's prime time to conduct our annual pruning extravaganza. There's nothing like a little nip in the air to move us quickly through our winter pruning routines with purpose. We're also pulling out the trusty landscape design notes and planning our goals for this growing season.

The art of pruning offers the opportunity to shape your surroundings branch by branch. Growing up on a small family vineyard, the task of pruning fell during college winter vacations. I was easily swayed by promises of cold, hard cash and the chance to spend some quality time next to the pleasantly flowing Russian River. Over the month-long vacation, every grape on our 2-acre plot was carefully pruned and trellised. The stresses of college life fell away as we wiled away the hours carefully tending the grapes I'd planted in the hot summer sun as a teenager and watched mature to harvest year after year. At first, the task of deciding which canes to cut and which to save for the growing season seemed daunting. But after listening to Dad explain how to discern the strongest canes from the weakest, our hands flowed into the constant motion of clipping and tying canes to wire trellises. Nature's secrets popped up unexpectedly. One day we found an abandoned birds' nest, beautifully crafted and perched at the base of a grape vine. Another day we accidently startled a mother duck sitting on her eggs. After she flew away quacking, we learned to steer clear of her nest to keep her incubating eggs toasty.

After pruning an entire vineyard for several years in the dead of winter, taking care of our home farm's few fruit trees, rose bushes and deciduous shrubs feels like a cinch. Frost (and snow!) season offers an ideal time for pruning because plants are dormant. We clean up scraggly and dead branches left over from last growing season, along with undesirable plant growth, such as suckers (stems growing from the roots) and water sprouts (vertical shoots growing from trunk and branches). Always use sharp pruners of the correct size (larger branches require larger pruners, smaller ones a more fine instrument). Pruning cuts should be made as cleanly and close to the trunk or stem as possible, at a 45-degree angle to growth buds. The best way to become proficient at pruning is to practice and observe resulting plant growth. As experience brings confidence, pruning can become a creative expression. Shaping topiary (or plant sculpture) provides a formal, elegant touch.

We've also got robust climbing roses and Rosa rugosa, or the wild rose, with rose hips used for intense doses of vitamin C. Both require pruning to boost flowers and reduce unwanted sprawling growth. We adore blossoms climbing over fences and along walkways, and thus encourage our climbers to develop long canes that sprout many flowers. Our community offers several free rose pruning workshops, where we've learned insightful tips from experienced pruners with decades of experience. If you're interested in rose care, branch out and spend a winter morning surrounded by the cheerful snipping of rose pruners.

Pruning fruit trees encourages heavier fruit set and boosts plant health by creating good air circulation around the fruit. Pruning an established tree may seem overwhelming at first and may take several hours. Fruit trees less than 10 years old don't require very much pruning and should only take a few minutes.

Starting with cutting back overlapping and downward growing branches will set up a good framework. Water sprouts and suckers should also be eliminated here, as they will not set fruit. Deciduous shrub and tree pruning technique varies slightly depending on plant location and species. In general, pruning cut techniques include thinning (drastically decreasing vegetative growth), heading (cutting tips of branches to produce clusters of buds below primary buds) and shearing (random heading that produces dense growth).

click to enlarge There's no time like the present to draft a garden design. - SHUTTERSTOCK
  • Shutterstock
  • There's no time like the present to draft a garden design.

Late winter is also a time to let our imagination wander through our home farm design. We've designated areas of our landscape into distinct sections, each with a different purpose. We consider the design of each section individually and collectively, assessing how to best make progress toward our finished landscape. Each year we focus on adding a few new plants, building new structures and maintaining the hardscape (pathways, garden beds and planting bed borders). As we tidy up pathways and reestablish overgrown borders, we're inspired by the coming of spring and a new growing season.

For anyone who doesn't already have a garden design, there's no time like the present to begin. Drawing out measured garden dimensions on a piece of graph paper and overlaying tracing paper make for a fun and productive process. Browse the landscaping stencils available at art supply stores and let your imagination wander with purpose and beauty in mind. Along with planning colors and textures, having areas designated for specific purposes, such as vegetables and flowers, kid play zones, dog runs, picnic areas or even a mediation garden, creates spaces that draw us into the yard every day.

Katie Rose McGourty is the owner of Healthy Living Everyday at

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