Timing is Everything

casey_P_RolandWith the shortest day of the year behind us, I can already feel the days getting longer. Winter buds are swollen and on the launching pad, ready for “springing” into action, or are they?

The dormant buds so obvious this time of year were actually put into place last June! When last year’s growing season had peaked, twig length reached its zenith, the flowers had set their fruit and fell to the ground, and the annual rings had finished growing for the summer. The tree set about the task of manufacturing the following spring “rev-up”. It became very busy carefully organizing and folding and tucking the delicate spirals of leaves, flowers and stems into compact little bundles like so many tiny parachutes, and encapsulating them in a waterproof sheath for cold winter storage. I avoid using the term “start-up” as the tree isn’t really shut off, it is just idling for a few months.

What about the term “early spring”? Bud break is more a function of waning night time hours than temperature, and spring frost damage proves this, no offense meant to groundhogs named Phil. Trees right now are purged with water, and making pruning cuts on a dormant mid-winter maple will make for so many mini waterfalls! It won’t cause much harm, although it looks like the tree is bleeding. Pruning during the dormant season is a whole heck of a lot easier as far as delicate specimen Japanese maples when the scaffold structure is defined without the distraction of foliage, and the same goes for the pruning of fruit trees.

The disadvantage of early winter pruning is that the pruning wounds sit open for months before any wound wood grows in an attempt to close over and seal the pruning cut. (Don’t you dare paint that cut!) That said, just before bud break is the BEST time to make those cuts. You can create a calendar this coming spring and set your watch to that for the rest of the tree’s life! You can prune after bud break and into the flowering stage, you will just have to be very gentle with how you remove the pruned portions from the tree, as they are in an extremely delicate state that time of year and it is easy to dislodge newly revved up buds and flowers! Next month I will include a before and after picture of an apple tree that I have done for the past few years, with a discussion about pruning tools and general pruning guidelines. A picture (or two) is worth a thousand words. (Special thanks to Rutherford Platt for the inspiration for this month’s article.)