A Sharp Knife is not Enough

“Prune when the knife is sharp” goes the old saying. Wrong! (But don’t ever prune if the knife—or shears—is not sharp.) There are best times for pruning, and they depend more on the type of plant and the mode of training than on the sharpness of the knife.

Cat is ready to prune

Cat is ready to prune

As each growing season draws to a close in temperate climates, trees, shrubs, and vines lay away a certain amount of food in their above- and below-ground parts. This food keeps the plants alive through winter, when they can’t use sunlight to make food because of lack of leaves (on deciduous plants) or cold temperatures. This stored food also fuels the growth of the following season’s new shoots and leaves, which, as they mature, start manufacturing their own food and pumping the excess back into the plant for use in the coming winter.

A similar situation exists in some tropical and subtropical climates having alternating wet and dry, or cool and warm, seasons. Plants must wait out those quiet times drawing on their reserves.

Old apple tree, unpruned & pruned.jpg

Old apple tree, unpruned & pruned.jpg

When you prune a dormant plant, you remove buds that would have grown into shoots or flowers. Because pruning reapportions a plant’s food reserves amongst fewer buds, the fewer remaining shoots that grow each get more “to eat” than they otherwise would have and thus grow with increased vigor.

(For more details on above and what follows, see my book, The Pruning Book, available from the usual sources or directly from me, signed, at

Summer or Winter, Growing or Dormant?

As the growing season progresses, response to pruning changes, because shoots of woody plants cease to draw on reserves and stems stop growing longer well before leaves fall in autumn. In fact, growth commonly screeches to a halt by midsummer. So the later in the growing season that you prune, the less inclined a woody plant is to regrow — the year of pruning, at least.

Traditional theory holds that summer pruning is more dwarfing than dormant pruning, but contemporary research puts this theory on shaky footing. True, if you shorten a stem while it is dormant — in February, for example — buds that remain will begin to grow into shoots by March and April, while if you cut back a shoot in midsummer, the plant might just sit tight, unresponsive. Ah, but what about the following spring? That’s when the summer-pruned shoot, according to this recent research, waits to respond. (Plants have an amazing capacity to act however they please no matter what we do to them.)

What are the practical implications of all this? First of all, if you want to coax buds along a stem to telescope out into shoots, prune that stem when it’s dormant.

Pollarded catalpa

Pollarded catalpa

On the other hand, summer is the time to remove a stem to let light in among the branches (to color up ripening apples or peaches, for example), or to remove a stem that is vigorous and in the wrong place. Watersprouts, which are vigorous, vertical shoots, are less likely to regrow if snapped off before they become woody at their bases.

Under certain conditions, summer pruning can be more dwarfing than dormant pruning, because regrowth following summer pruning can be pruned again. And again. Under certain conditions, summer pruning can also prompt the formation of flower buds rather than new shoots — just what you want for solidly clothing the limbs of a pear espalier with fruits or the branches of a wisteria vine with flowers.

Pear, before and after summer pruning detail

Pear, before and after summer pruning detail

Red currant espalier before & after summer pruning

Red currant espalier before & after summer pruning

Unfortunately, the response to summer pruning depends on the condition of the plant as well as the weather. A weak plant may be killed by summer pruning. A late summer wet spell, especially if it follows weeks of dry weather, might awaken buds that without pruning would have stayed dormant until the following spring. Also factor just how much growth you lop off a stem as well as temperatures in the days or weeks following pruning.

Whose Health?

Regrowth and flowering are the dramatic responses to pruning; you also must consider plant health when deciding when to prune. Although immediate regrowth rarely occurs after late summer or autumn pruning, cells right at the cut are stirred into activity to close off the wound. Active cells are liable to be injured by cold weather, which is a reason to avoid pruning in late summer or autumn except in climates with mild winters or with plants that are very hardy to cold.

Dormant pruning just before growth begins leaves a wound exposed for the minimum amount of time before healing begins. Some plants — peach and its relatives, for example — are so susceptible to infections at wounds that they are best pruned while in blossom. On the other hand, the correct time to prune a diseased or damaged branch is whenever you notice it.

Also consider your own health (your equanimity and your energy) when timing your pruning. Depending on the number of plants you have to prune, as well as other commitments, you may not be able to prune all your plants at each one’s optimum moment. I prune my gooseberries in autumn (they never suffer winter damage), my apples just after the most bitter winter cold has reliably move on, and my plums (a peach relative) while they are blossoming.

Sap oozes profusely from cut surfaces of maples, birches, grapes, and kiwis if they are pruned just as their buds are plumping up in spring. The way to avoid this loss of sap is to prune either in winter, when the plants are fully dormant, or in spring, after growth is underway. The sap loss actually does no harm to the plants, so rushing or delaying pruning on this account is not for your plant’s health, but so that you can rest easy.


I Start with the Easiest

I spent an hour or so today working on my sculptures. Yes, they were out in the garden. No, they were not stone renderings of fish spouting water into a pond or of ethereal females sprinkling the ground with flower petals. These sculptures are quite large and, as you might guess, the are green, with leaves. 

Some of the sculptures have been completed; some are works in progress. The easiest of these sculptures are nothing more than short hedges, one of boxwood and the the other of yew. Each makes a cozy enclosure, the yew for my front stoop and the boxwood for a bed of Smooth (Hills-of-Snow) hydrangea, a hop vine climbing a trellis, and a Sweet Autumn clematis climbing a brick wall.

Yew at front stoopWith flat tops and nearly vertical sides, both hedges are quick and easy to prune. They both widen slightly from head to toe because, quoting from the “hedging” section of my book, The Pruning Book, “If the top is wider than the bottom, the bottom will become shaded. Over time, the shaded portions will die out, leaving gaps in the hedge.”

(Could these two hedges hardly qualify as “sculpture?” I contend that creating any three-dimensional object requiring aesthetic decisions as to shape and size qualifies as “sculpting.”) 

A hedge out in back of my home takes longer to prune because the hedge itself is longer as well as, in some parts, higher. This 50 foot row of privet bushes is waist height through most of its length except for the gentle upward sweep it takes as it approaches either end. After climbing 8 feet, the sweeps level out, continuing on to create the top of an arch beneath which is an opening through which I can walk, even drive my tractor.

Catty-corner to the swooping hedge (which, in its earlier stages, I was going to sculpt into a two-headed dragon) is another hedge with a pass-through. This hedge forms a high wall a few feet off the back wall of my workshop, and it’s pass-through iswide enough and, with its slight bump up above it, also high enough so that anything that fits through the barn door can also fit through the pass-through. 
Intersecting hedges
The plant that makes up this hedge is Tea crabapple (Malus hupihensis), an interesting plant not usually hedged. It produces seeds that are apomictic, a botanical quirk where, to quote from another of my books, The Ever Curious Gardener, the plant produces “seeds that are not the result of pollination, but that develop from the same kind of cells that make up the rest of the plant.” (All seedlings and the mother plant are clones of each other. These were extra seedlings from those I had grown for research use when I worked for Cornell University.)

Left to its own devices, a Tea crabapple would grow up to 40 feet high and produce fragrant, white blossoms and cherry-size crabapples. For decades, I’ve kept the row of seven of them only 15 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 9 feet high. They don’t mind except with all that pruning, flowers or fruit are rare.

Heads and Clouds

Now we come to the more difficult hedges, ones that are more sculptural. Both are yews, a plant that tolerates just about any kind of pruning. I have written about both hedges previously. Since I revisited them today with pruning and hedge shears, I thought it was time to revisit them on the page also.

The first is not a hedge, but a solitary, giant old yew bush that, at more than 40 years old, predates my tenure here. For most of that time, it was pruned to the shape of a 15 foot high and wide cone. More recently I’ve pared away at it to try to morph that cone into a giant head.

Problem is that the interior of a plant cone that size is dark, so the stems within lose their leaves. Some of them dry out and die back. As a result the yew head’s eye sockets and mouth, both of which were supposed to be green recesses are dark — and a bit foreboding.
Yew bush pruned to a head
Today’s pruning was geared to shearing the whole bush to keep it from growing too large, and shortening all the dead wood deep within the eye and mouth sockets. New sprouts should then appear within those once-shaded gaps. 

The other sculpting challenge started life very conventionally, as four yew hedges planted along the house wall. It was your typical “foundation” plants and planting. Years ago, for fun, I sculpted the hedge into a giant whale and, a few years later, a giant caterpillar. Easy.
Caterpillar yew
More recently, I decided to go more abstract and artistic, with “cloud pruning.” Or, as Jake Hobson more accurately terms it, in his informative and visually inspiring book The Art of Creative Pruning, “organic topiary.” He describes this pruning as creating forms that take “on a decidedly organic character, as though they were made of wax and exposed to the sun too long. Definition is lost, in favour of natural, flowing lines.” That’s my goal, thus far hinted at but unachieved. I find it difficult to unshackle the hedge from the three individual bushes that comprise it.
Organic topiary yew

If Only Michelangelo…

So much in gardening involves taking time to step back and admire your finished work. With these sculptures, even the simplest ones, it’s important to do so periodically while sculpting.

It’s all fun and very satisfying. If I make a mistake, I can just wait for the plant to grow back. Just think if Michelangelo could have stepped aside for a few weeks while his marble grew back for another round of being chipped away.

On the other hand, he would not have to chip away at the finished piece every few months through summer to keep it in shape. These sculptures need multiple prunings through the growing season to keep their shape.


I Grow Taller

“Make hay while the sun shines” is fine advice in its season. For winter, how about? “Prune while the snow is high and firm.” 

My apple and pear trees are semi-dwarf, presently ranging from seven to eleven feet tall. Even though I have a pole pruner and various long-reach pruning tools, I still carry my three-legged orchard ladder out to the trees with me to work on their upper branches. Sometimes you have to get your eyes and arms and hands right up near where you’re actually cutting.
Pruning on snow
A few years ago, as I was looking out the window and admiring the foot or of snow on the ground, I realized that all that snow could give me a literal leg up on pruning. If I stayed on top of the snow, that is. While the snow was still soft, I was able to do this by strapping on a pair of snowshoes, which I bought, used, just for this purpose. (For travel through snow, I prefer to glide, on skis.) When the snow melted a little and then froze, the icy crust that formed was able to support my weight sans snowshoes.

In any case, when there’s a good depth on the ground, such as today, I gather my tools – minus the stepladder – and walk tall out to the trees.

 Top Down Pruning

Plants, like other creatures, have hormones, and a hormone (called auxin) in every plant generally coaxes uppermost portions to grow most vigorously. Which is why old apple trees become topheavy, with most shoot growth high up. The upshot of this habit is that most fruit is borne high in the branches, out of reach, and lower branches are shaded to become unproductive and prone to disease. 

  Ideally, then, the best place to start pruning is with the most vigorous branches, highest in the tree. That’s also the last place you want to start if you’re standing at ground level. Perched atop a good depth of snow next to my smaller trees, starting near the top was much easier.

  If I get high enough (in the tree), I can imagine that I’m hovering above the branches, looking at them from the perspective of ol’ Sol, which is a good perspective for a grower of fruit trees. This allows a more objective perspective on which branches are going to be blocking light or otherwise cramping others for space.
Pruning in snow
Letting more light and air in among the branches and, at the same time removing potential fruits with pruned branches, channels more of each tree’s energy into perfecting those fruits that remain. Remaining fruits are then healthier, larger, and more flavorful, especially for naturally larger fruits such as apples, pears, and peaches

Snow Tales

The snow is a blank canvas that records some winter activities. My dogs’ footprints are obvious and telling. They are provincial in their travels, having beaten paths from their doghouses, where they sleep, to the driveway, where they greet humanity, and to the deck, where they lie in the sun.

 Daisy and Sammy at work

Daisy and Sammy at work

Less frequent are their forays out into the hay field to do their business and to see if anything interesting is creeping around out there.

The small, padded footprints of my cat hasn’t beaten out paths. The cat more randomly explores out-of-the-way nooks and crannies. She also likes to steer clear of the dogs, who consider her just another small animal worth chasing.

Cat, Gracie at work

Gracie at work

The distinctive footprints that I’m keeping the closest eye out for are those of rabbits and deer. Now, about when I typically delude myself that all danger has past, periods of warmer weather start coaxing rabbits to wander about and eye my trees and shrubs as food. Now is also when cottontail rabbits start reproducing, the first of up to five litters for this year, with a half dozen or so bunnies per litter! Very cute, but deadly to my plants.

  This winter, a couple of deep snows either brought deer here or displayed their abundance with tracks in the snow. For the rabbits, who feed on young trees and low branches, I sometimes make up a spray of white latex paint, water, eggs, cinnamon, and hot pepper. That needs to be re-applied about now. Traps I set out for them are thoroughly and safely (for the rabbits) buried in snow. Perhaps I’ll dig them out and re-set them.

The uncluttered expanse of snow makes it easy to see where I put my pruning tools as I prune the apples and pears. The snow also makes it easy to see where I drop the prunings.

Deer tracks in the snow

Deer tracks in the snow

And why do I care where I drop my prunings? Because I can then quickly look at them to see if any bark has been gnawed off those freshly cut branches. And what would gnaw bark off those freshly cut branches. Rabbits!

No sign of rabbits – yet, at least – on those prunings as well as on tracks in the snow. Thank you Gracie (my cat).

The dogs’ are supposed to be keeping deer at bay, but do so only if they are out and about when deer are around. This year I’ve been relying on Bobbex repellent, which I spray monthly on branches that would be within reach of the deer. So far, the sprays have been 100% effective even on trees with deer tracks right beside them in the snow.

Get Ready for Spring

I will be hosting a WEEDLESS GARDENING webinar on Monday, February 22nd for $35.  It will run from 7-8:30 pm EST and there will be plenty of opportunity to ask questions. For details, go to Or trust me, and go right to registration (required) at 


Lawn Nouveau

I’m taking up sculpture. Not in bronze, Carrara marble, or granite, but with plants.

My easiest sculpture is one I’ve been doing for years. I can’t really say “working on for years” because every year it vanishes, to be started anew each spring. It’s “lawn nouveau,” as I call it in my book, The Pruning Book, and then go on to describe the technique as “two tiers of grassy growth . . . the low grass is just like any other lawn, and kept that way with a lawnmower. The taller portions are mowed infrequently – one to three times a year, depending on the desired look (and my need for hay) — with a scythe or tractor.” The sharp, defining line between the high grass and the low grass is integral to the design.
Meadow in September
I’m lucky to have a meadow bathed in sunlight bordering the south side of my property. But even a small yard might be able to accommodate lawn nouveau. My three-quarter of an acre yard did before the meadow shifted to my care. (Previous owners had maintained it as very large lawn with weekly or biweekly mowing.)

This sculpture has many pieces to it.

One is how I manage it with mowing the whole meadow either at the end or the beginning of the growing season, a necessary task or the meadow will naturally revert over time to forest. Even a once a year mowing might be insufficient, as I realized a couple of years ago with the increasing encroachment of woody shrubs and vines such as poison ivy, grape, and multiflora rose.

Repeated mowing during one season brought the meadow back in order, mostly with grasses. Over time I expect and hope for a resurgence also of more goldenrods, bee balms, and other herbaceous, flowering plants.
Meadow of an autumn passed
The look of the meadow is also influenced by a season’s weather. And by the progress of the season, the meadow’s appearance being very different as grasses morph from succulent green leaves in spring to late summer’s tawny shoots and seed heads. Late summer also brings on showy flowers.
Meadow in spring
Even the time of day; it’s early morning appearance is quite different than its appearance at various times throughout the day, all dependent also, of course, on what’s happening up in the sky. All this making for a very interesting sight of varying beauty.

A lot of this is either beyond my control or very unpredictable. What is neither is my mowing during the growing season. Each spring I lay out a path, maintained by mowing with my tractor, that wends its way through the meadow.
Meadow path
The goal is to make it inviting and practical. Practical because it carries you to the end of the meadow into a bosk of maples, river birches, and one large buartnut tree, and then on to a studio building.
Path leading to bosk
Meadow, looking north
This year I decided to also sculpt more edges of the meadow, cutting the high grass with a scythe to a pattern that matches the flow of the path within. One of my favorite views of the meadow is from an upstairs window, its height allowing me to visually swallow the whole view.

A Head for Yew

Another plant sculpture here is a large yew that I’m carving to become a fifteen foot high head. This one is easy enough because I’m merely copying one of a series of such heads living in a public garden in Britain.

The bush is old, 40 years at least, and has always been pruned to a cone shape with slightly rounded rather than straight sides.

Creating the facial features has involved some deep pruning down into the center of the bush. Yew is a forgiving plant, readily resprouting from even old wood. Problem is that some of those interior stems are old and dead.
Yew head
The challenge, then, is time, to be patient for sprouts to grow where light now is penetrating. And then to trim those sprouts so that all levels of the sculpture present green surfaces.

Cloudy Aspirations

And finally, my most difficult sculpture, one for which I each year claim improvement, but not success. The plants: yews again. In this case, there are four of them, all maintained four to five feet high so as not to block the windows of the wall they front.

Originally, they were pruned as a standard yew-along-house-foundation hedge. A few years ago, I morphed them into something more interesting and humorous, a giant caterpillar, with some success. (My inspiration here was the work of Keith Buesing, topiarist extraordinaire of Gardiner, New York.)
caterpillar yew
More recently for these plants, I decided to try a method of pruning known as okarikomi, a technique that originated in Japan. In this case, a group of shrubs, rather than maintaining their individual identity, are pruned to flow together to create a scene reminiscent of billowing clouds or a distant, rolling landscape.
Okarikomi yew
Thus far, I’m not pleased with my pruning. But every year I make some changes and it looks better than it did the previous year.

Plants are very forgiving. Every year, even during each growing season, I have opportunity to change my sculptures according to my whims or what looks nicer to me. What will the meadow, the yew head, and the okarikomi yews look like next year?

And Composting

In case you didn’t notice my previous post, I will be holding a composting workshop/webinar Wednesday, September 23, 2020 at 7 PM. For more information, go to


Nearing Influence

What struck me most about Scott Nearing was his sturdy appearance, arms hanging loosely from broad shoulders, his near perfect teeth, and the deeply creviced wrinkles of his face. He was 91 years old. Looks aside, his influence on me was deep despite the brevity of my visit.Scott NearingScott Nearing was a professor of economics, a political activist, a pacifist, a vegetarian and an advocate of simple living. And a gardener. For many of these reasons, he was almost a cult figure back in the 1970s when I, a young man, visited him. He was then known mostly for his book Living the Good Life. I had read the book, and decided to drive 1,000 miles from Madison, Wisconsin to show up on his farm, unannounced, in Harborside, Maine.

I thought of that visit today as I was swinging my scythe. Would I have been out in the field this morning doing so if I hadn’t made that visit? Scott was a big fan of scything, about which, he wrote, “It’s a first class, fresh-air exercise, that stirs the blood and flexes the muscles, while it clears the meadows.” Lee scythingFor me, working my field in the quiet of early morning, with the sun low in the sky and grasses still moist from morning dew, is sheer pleasure. A morning dance.

From a practical standpoint, no need to worry about waking neighbors with noise of a mower engine, or to worry about getting a mower bogged down in wet spots.

Keeping the Magic

I’ve swung a scythe for many decades. (Not that that makes me an expert in its use; for the first couple of decades I did it wrong. Now, more right.) Two considerations have kept the magic alive.

First, not too much. When I first acquired the acre and a half field to my south, I aimed to keep it a meadow, stemming invasion from woody plants in a natural transition to forest by scything the whole field. Considering the lushness of the vegetation, and how rapidly it grew back, that was a bold undertaking. The result: Something short of sheer pleasure, and tennis elbow.

Salvation came in the form of a small, farm tractor and a brush hog, with which I now mow the bulk of the field once a year.

There’s still plenty to scythe, including areas near my fruit and nut trees, and areas too wet for the tractor. I also scythe selected areas of the field proper, changing yearly to allow scythed sections, whose mowings I gather up, to regenerate. Also important: I limit daily scything to no more than a half hour.
Meadow and cart full of hay
The second consideration is to use the right kind of scythe. The so-called American type scythe, with a curved handle and stamped blade, is put to best use decorating the wall of a barn. I use a so-called Austrian type scythe (purchased from, which usually has a straight handle and is lightweight with a razor sharp, hammered-thin blade. The blade needs periodic hammering (peening) for keeping its taper or for repair, and daily dressing with a whetstone.scything, beginning stroke

Blade length is important. Back when I was working the whole field, the job was made harder because of the 36 inch long blade I was using. Sure, you can cut more with a longer blade, but that was too much lush vegetation to plow through in one swing. Nowadays a 22 inch blade strikes a nice balance, not biting off more than I can “chew.”

No Big Field, No Problem

No need for access to a large field to experience the physical and practical pleasures of scything. For many years, my field was only a portion of my original three-quarter acre property. And no matter how large or small the field, no reason to do as Scott did, to “clear the meadow.” On my small property, I practiced what I called Lawn Nouveau, created, as I detail in my book,  The Pruning Book, by sculpting out two tiers of grassy growth. The low grass is maintained just like any other lawn, and kept that way with a lawnmower.

The taller portions need to be scythed but once a year, or more frequently if desired. Raking up mowings from the tall grass portions avoids unsightly clumps or smothering of regrowth. The rakings are good material for mulch or compost. A crisp boundary between tall and low grass keeps everything neat and avoids the appearance of an unmown lawn.
Lawn Nouveau
Lawn Nouveau saves me time because the tall grass needs infrequent mowing and there’s no rush to get it done. The tall grass becomes more than just grass as other plant species elbow their way in. Which ones gain foothold depend on the weather, the soil, and frequency of mowing. An attractive mix of Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, chicory, and red clover might mingle with the grasses in a dry, sunny area, with ferns, sedges, and buttercups mixing with the grasses in a wetter portion.

Curves at the interface of high and low grass present bold sweeps to carry you along, then pull you forward and push you backward, as you look upon them. Avenues of low grass cut into the tall grass invite exploration — that was the purpose of today’s scything. Thank you Scott.
Meadow with path


Yew Love

Mundane as she may be, I love yew (not mispelled, but the common name for Taxus species, incidentally vocalized just like “you”). Hardy, green year ‘round, long-lived, and available in many shapes and sizes, what’s not to love? Perhaps that it’s so commonly planted, pruned in dot-dash designs to grace the foundations in front of so many homes.

Still, I love her. For one thing, Robin Hood’s bow was fashioned from a yew branch (English yew, T. baccata, in this case). Two other species — Pacific yew (T. brevifolia) and Canadian yew (T. canadensis) — are sources of taxol, and anti-cancer drug.
Yew berries
At a very young age, I became intimate with yew bushes surrounding our home’s front stoop, on which my brother and I would often play. Yew’s red berries, with an exposed dark seed in each of their centers, would give the effect of being stared at by so many eyes. Sometimes we’d squish out the red juice, carefully though, because we were repeatedly reminded that all parts of the plant are poisonous. (I’ve since learned that the red berries are not poisonous; but  other parts of the plant, including the seed within each red berry are poisonous.)

If yew has, for me, one major fault, it’s that deer eat it like candy. Interesting, since grazing on yew can kill a cow or a horse.

Mostly, I love yew because she takes to any and all types of pruning. My father once had a very overgrown yew hedge threatening to envelope his terrace. I suggested cutting the whole hedge down to stumps. Following an anxious few weeks when I thought my suggestion perhaps overly bold, green sprouts began to appear along the stump. A few years later the hedge was dense with leaves, and within bounds.

Although usually pruned as a bush, yew can be pruned as a tree. A trunk, once exposed and developed, has a pretty, reddish color. Deer sometimes take care of this job, chomping off all the stems they can reach to create a high-headed plant with a clear trunk. 

As an alternative to being pruned to dot-dash spheres and boxes, yew hedges can be pruned to fanciful shapes, including animals, or “cloud pruned” (niwaki, the Japanese method of pruning to cloud shapes). Many years ago, I followed the herd and planted some yews along the front foundation of my house, pruning them to one long dash. No dots.
Yew caterpillar
Since then, I’ve converted that hedge to a giant caterpillar and, more recently, tired of the caterpillar and attempted to cloud prune it, not with great success so far. (It’s my shortcoming as a sculptor, not the plant’s fault.) The goal in this case is not the kind of cloud pruning with clouds as balls of greenery perched on the ends of stems. My goal is to blend the four plants together as one billowy, soft cloud.

Facing my kitchen window is another yew, a large one that was planted way before I got here. Its previous caretaker, and up to recently I, have maintained it as a large, rounded cone. Last year I decided to make that rounded cone more interesting, copying a topiary in Britain. The design is in its early stages, awaiting some new growth this year to fill in bare stems now showing in interior of the bush.
Yew topiary in progress

Not Too Late for Peaches

Moving on to more pragmatic pruning . . . peaches. No, it’s not too late. In fact, the ideal time to prune a peach tree is around bloom time, when healing is quick. This limits the chance of stem diseases, to which peaches are susceptible.

Peach tree, before pruning

Peach tree, before pruning

Peach trees need to be pruned more severely than other fruit trees. As with other fruit trees, the goals are to avoid branch congestion so remaining branches can be bathed in light and air, to plan for future harvests, and to reduce the crop — yes, you read that right — so that more energy and better quality can be pumped into remaining fruits.

To begin, I approached my tree, loppers and pruning saw in hand, for some Sawing peach limbmajor cuts aimed at keeping the tree open to light and air.

Peaches bear each season’s fruits on stems that grew the previous season. So next, with pruning shears, possibly the lopper, in hand, I went over the tree and shortened some stems. This coaxes buds along those stems to grow into new stems on which to hang next year’s peaches.
Shortening peach branch
And finally, I went over the tree with pruning shears, clipping off dead twigs as well as weak, downward growing stems. They can’t support large, juicy, sweet fruits.

Done. I stepped back and admired my work.
Peach tree after pruningAnd, of course, for more about pruning, there’s my book, The Pruning Book.

Pruning, Flowers

Much of Pruning is About Renewal

Why am I spending so much time pruning these days? To keep plants manageable and healthy, of course. But also so that flowering and fruiting trees, shrubs, and vines keep on flowering and fruiting. “Renewal pruning” is what does this.

Pruning apple spur

Pruning apple spur

As plant stems age, they — like all living things — become decrepit, no longer able to perform well. But any plant’s show or productivity can be kept up if stems that are too old are periodically lopped back, which promotes growth of new, young, fecund stems. That’s all there is to renewal pruning.

Ah, but the devil is in the details. One important detail is how old is “too old.” That depends on the flowering and fruiting habit of the plant.

Near one extreme would be pear trees. Along pear stems grow stubby growths, called “spurs,” which bear the tree’s flowers and fruits.

Young pear spur

Young pear spur

Older pear spur

Older pear spur



These stubby growths grow only an inch or less each year.  Over time, spurs branch and these small branches, in turn, branch to create what look like miniature trees perched along the tree’s stems.

A pear’s individual spur can remain vibrant for about a decade, so little pruning is needed annually. But eventually, even a spur grows old and decrepit. I renewal prune my pears by cutting back some of the stubby parts of a spur system to coax out younger stubby growths or even by lopping back a whole stem on which they sit, stimulating new stem growth on which will develop new spurs.

Near the other extreme in pruning would be an everbearing raspberry plant, which bears flowers and fruits on young shoots arising from ground level. Those bearing stems are very short lived. One way to prune an everbearing raspberry plant would be to lop all stems to the ground each winter. Having borne, those stems are aging rapidly, and pruning stimulates a flush of new, bearing stems that will come up from ground level in spring.

Everbearing raspberry growth habit

Everbearing raspberry growth habit

(Not to muddy the waters, but everbearing raspberry stems actually bear late in their first summer of growth, then again in midsummer the following year, so stems could be left one more season to bear that second crop. After that, though, the two-year-old stems need to be cut back. They die after their second year anyway.)

Pear and everbearing raspberry represent two extremes in bearing habit and, hence, method of renewal pruning. Other plants lie somewhere on the spectrum between these extremes. Where? It depends, as I wrote, on their particular bearing habit. For instance, blueberry stems are most productive on stems up to 6 years old, gooseberries on stems 2 and 3 years old, and grapes and peaches on stems one year old. So I cut away stems older than 6 years old from my blueberry bushes, stems older than 3 years old from my gooseberry bushes, and stems older than a year old from my grape vines and peach trees.

For other plants grown for either their flowers or their fruits, find out how to renewal prune them by watching how they bear for a season or more, or get the information from a book (such as my book, The Pruning Book).

A Workshop

If you’re interested in delving deeper into pruning, I will be holding a pruning workshop here on my farmden in New Paltz, NY on March 28, 2020. For more information about this workshop, please go to

Not Forgetting the Flowers

Flowers are at a premium this time of year. Here on my farmden, the only flowers blooming outdoors are winter aconite and snowdrops.

Winter aconite

Winter aconite

(Typically, my ‘Arnold’s Promise’ witch hazel would be bursting into bloom about now but a few years ago I performed dramatic renewal pruning to reduce the size of the plant. No special technique was involved other than lopping the whole plant to ground level. Witch hazel’s stems bear flowers for many, many years, so don’t need regular pruning; it does take a few years, though before stems are old enough to begin bearing.)

Indoors, plants sense the lengthening days of brightening sunlight. African violets have been blooming for a couple of weeks and will go on doing so for weeks to come.

African violet

The same goes for the Odontoglossum pulchellum orchid, whose stems are weighed down with small waxy white, fragrant flowers.

One surprise was a butterfly bush that was in a large pot that I had brought indoors for winter. This plant enjoys bright sun and hot days, neither of which it receives indoors — it has, nonetheless, managed to cough forth, so far, a singe blue blossom. I stick my nose into the flowers, close my eyes, and inhale, and it’s midsummer.

Butterfly bush flowe

Butterfly bush, indoors

Most dramatic are the humongous, fire engine red bloom of an amaryllis plant. It is gaudy, but appreciated anyway.

My favorites are the white blossoms now opening on Meyer lemon. The blossoms aren’t all that showy but their fragrance is heady and heavenly. No need even to get my nose up close.

I did catch one other bit of welcome color outdoors: my first sighting of bluebirds. The day is gray but the bluebird, to quote Thoreau, was “carrying the [blue] sky on its back.“


Fruit Heaven

Hudson's Golden Gem apple

Hudson’s Golden Gem apple

I remember a few years ago of having a most fruitful — and I mean this very literally — experience visiting one of the USDA’s germplasm repositories. “Germplasm repository” doesn’t sound like the kind of place anyone would want to be, but these USDA repositories are, in fact, sunny, colorful places, often redolent with enticing aromas. In the case of the one I visited, the aroma was of ripening apples.

Germplasm is the stuff that gives rise to an organism, and the USDA has set up repositories around the country to house various kinds of plants. Each repository is situated where a particular group of plants grows well. So Davis, California is home to the repository for figs, pomegranates, and Asian persimmons; Corvallis, Oregon is the repository for pears, gooseberries, and mint; and Geneva, New York, where I visited, houses the collections of apples and American-type grapes. (My own gooseberry collection helped build the gooseberry collection at Corvallis about 30 years ago.)

Taking into account seed collections and other, related work, these repositories maintain over 20,000 accessions of plants representing over 300 species. Germplasm from these collections is available to scientist and other interested citizens, which is how I obtained grafting wood to make most of the rare varieties of apples and pears that I grow.

So there I was — a fruitophile — standing with clipboard in hand and camera in pocket in in a field of apple trees, each one a different variety. My mission: Photograph and collect 3 to 4 samples of a couple of dozen varieties. What sweet labor! (I had previously contacted the repository staff and received permission).

Up and down the rows I went, photographing, collecting, and, of course, tasting. Apples have been cultivated for so long and are so popular a fruit that it’s no wonder that such great variation exists in the fruits’ appearances and flavors. Flavors include anise-flavored Ellison’s Orange, sweet Mollie’s Delicious, spicy-tart Cox’s Orange Pippin, and everything in between and beyond. The range in color goes from gray-brown Pomme Grise to cheery red-splashed yellow King of the Pippin. And then there are variations in fruit size and shape and, less obvious, characteristics such as pest resistance, productivity, and cold tolerance.

Ashmead's Kernel apple

Ashmead’s Kernel apple

Most important, to me, is flavor. I should have brought a palate cleanser because after a while all the varieties were beginning to taste like . . . well . . . apples. Nonetheless, two varieties that I did not grow did stand out for flavor; I ordered grafting wood of Hudson’s Golden Gem and Pitmaston Pineapple to graft onto trunks of my Ingrid Marie trees once I lop their tops off.

After the apples, there were grapes to photograph and sample.

Tidy Not

Boy, would I love to tidy things up with some pruning now. The Golden Celebration rose bush would look nicer in coming months with those couple of tall, gawky stems cut off or back.
Golden Celebration rose
Grape and hardy kiwi stems are reaching out all over the place, grabbing onto each other and anything else they can wrap around.
Kiwi vines
The pear trees have a nice spreading form — except for watersprouts shooting vigorously skyward from the uppersides of some of the spreading branches. How nice it would be to cut these plants back now rather than in spring.

But I’m going to restrain myself from doing any pruning. As stated in The Pruning Book (by me!), “Although immediate regrowth rarely occurs after late summer or autumn pruning, cells right at the cut are stirred into activity to close off the wound. Active cells are liable to be injured by cold weather, which is a reason to avoid pruning in late summer or autumn except in climates with mild winters or with plants that are very hardy to cold.”

Gooseberries and currants are super cold hardy plants and begin growth relatively early in spring. All of which makes a good case for pruning those plants now.

And a Case for Not Tidying

Rather than prune, a good place to re-channel that “tidy everything up” urge is in the vegetable and flower garden.

Cleaning up is one way to lessen pest problems next year. As I pulled out spent bush bean plants, I gingerly placed them into the garden cart and, from there, onto the compost pile, trying not to disturb the resident bean beetles. Those bean beetles had hoped to spend the winter on site, to emerge next spring and lay eggs on next year’s bean plants. I’m hoping to “cook” as many of them as possible in the compost pile.

Tomato plants are looking a bit ragged even though they’re still bearing some tomatoes for fresh eating. Gathering up all stems, leaves, and old fruits and composting them reduces the inoculum load of diseases such as early blight and septoria leaf spot. Left in place, they would spend winter out in the garden ready to infect next year’s plants. It’s not a question of eradication, which isn’t possible, but of balance.
Tidy vegetable garden beds
Cutting down old peony stems and composting them takes inoculum for next years botrytis disease off-site. Left to infect plants next spring, botrytis could keep peony flower buds from unraveling.

As Charles Dudley Warner wrote over a hundred years ago (in My Summer in the Garden, which I highly recommend and is much more than a gardening book), “the closing scenes are not necessarily funereal . . . a garden . . . goes into winter-quarters . . . neat and trim . . . so that its last days shall not present a scene of melancholy ruin and decay.”

Grape Futures

My Rationale for Pruning so Late

Today I put the finishing touches on pruning my grapevines. Yes, it’s late: The buds have already swollen and expanded into clusters of small leaves. But there’s “method in my madness,” or, at least, my tardiness.

Vanessa grapes

Vanessa grapes

My vines often experience some winter damage, some varieties — New York Muscat, Reliance, and Vanessa, for instance — more than others. Waiting to prune until I see some green saves me from cutting off too many living canes and saving too many dead canes. In winter it’s not so easy to tell them apart.

So I do mostly rough pruning in winter, lopping back canes that have to go whether they’re living or dead. Canes also need to be shortened, even those that are to be eventually saved.

Which brings me to another reason I left the final pruning until today. Plants generally make their earliest growth in the season starting at the tips of shoots or canes. So when I shortened the remaining canes in winter, I didn’t cut them all the way back to their final length. Then if a late frost nips or kills early growth, it’s no problem. The canes are going to be shortened even further — today — to where buds were not as fully awake and susceptible to cold.

But waiting too, too long to prune can be problematic because those swollen buds flick off their resident canes with very little coaxing. Leave too much to prune this time of year and a lot of buds fly off as pruned canes are pulled down off the plant.

Why Prune? How?

A grapevine bears fruit near the bases of shoots that grow off one-year-old canes. Left to its own devices, the vine might grow 50 feet up into a tree, bear so heavily that it can’t provide sufficient energy to pump optimum flavor into each berry, and become a dark, dank, tangled mess of stems — perfect conditions for fungal diseases.
The goal of various methods of training and pruning grapes are the same: to leave a suitable number of canes conveniently positioned for harvest; to provide buds to grow into new, well-placed shoots for fruiting the following season; and to create a form that allows for good light and air circulation. As might be expected of a plant that’s been cultivated for thousands of years, many ways have been devised for training grapes.

The Four-arm Kniffin System is a kind of “cane pruning,” a traditional method of training in eastern U.S.. For support, a two-wire trellis, with one wire 6 feet and the other wire 3 feet above ground, is needed. The mature plant consists of a trunk with four canes growing from it, two trained in opposite directions along the upper wire and two similarly trained along the lower wire.

Pruning begins as four canes to carry the season’s fruits are selected. These canes should be moderately vigorous and originate close to the trunk and near the wires. With this year’s fruiting canes selected, plans for the following season’s crop are made by cutting back some stems to two buds each; these renewal spurs, as they are called, provide points of origin for new shoots (which will become fruiting canes in a year) near the two wires and on either side of the trunk.

Next, lop away all growth except for the four renewal spurs and the four saved canes. Finally, shorten each of the canes to about 6 ft. in length, leaving about 10 buds per cane (not counting bud clusters near the bases of the canes). This leaves ten times four, or 40, fruiting buds on the plant.

Many Methods with the Same Goal 

At the other extreme in pruning is “spur pruning,” where all that’s left is many 2-bud canes (now called “spurs”) from which grow fruiting shoots. “Head training” would be the most basic spur pruning, with the pruned vine left with nothing more than a trunk capped by a number of spurs.
A spur-pruned vine might instead sport a permanent trunk topped by two arms — permanent arms, called “cordons,” in this case — that run in opposite directions along a trellis wire.

Instead of leaving 4 long canes on which to bear fruit, many short, 2-bud canes are left along the cordons. To get the same number, 40, of fruiting shoots on a spur-pruned vine as on a Kniffen-pruned vine, twenty 2-bud spurs are left. All excess are cut away so that those that remain are 6 to 12 inches from their neighbors. Over time, some spurs will stretch, even after being shorted to 2 buds of one-year-old shoots, further away from the cordon. Lopping these back nearer the cordon puts them back in order.

Where to put all those fruiting shoots growing from the spurs? With “midwire” cordon training, cordons are trained along a wire at 3 foot height, and new shoots are trained upward by weaving them into 3 rows of wires strung at one foot above the cordon wire.
With “high-cordon” training, a trunk rising to about 6 feet is capped by two cordons trained in opposite directions along a wire. Fruiting shoots droop downward.High wire double cordon spur pruned grape
My grapes grow as high cordons, with a wrinkle; their fruiting shoots spread horizontally, rather than droop down. Wooden cross pieces provide this support on my arbor. Although this rigorous pruning puts off how soon the arbor offers relief from early summer sun, the arbor never becomes a tangled mess of stems and disease-ridden berries characteristic of many helter-skelter pruned grape arbors.

The trellis for my other high-cordons have two sets of wires running parallel on either side and one and three feet from the cordon’s wire. These wires provide a ledge on which fruiting shoots can rest, with clusters of grapes dangling just high enough for me to reach for easy harvest.

Fruit Tree Pruning

The Why, and the Easiest

Following last week’s missive about pruning fruiting shrubs, I now move on to pruning my fruiting trees. Again, this is “dormant pruning.” Yes, even though the trees’ flower buds are about to burst or have already done so, their response will still, for a while longer, be that to dormant pruning.Peach blossomsI mentioned flower buds, so these plants I’m pruning are mature, bearing plants. The objectives and, hence, pruning of a young tree are another ball game. As is renovative pruning, which is the pruning of long-neglected trees.

Most fruit trees need to be pruned (correctly) every year. Annual pruning keeps these trees healthy and keeps fruit within reach. This pruning also promotes year after year of good harvests (some fruit trees gravitate toward alternating years of feast and famine) and — most important — makes for the most luscious fruits.

With that said, as I’ve pointed out previously, a number of fruit trees can get by with little or no pruning, nothing more than thinning out congested branches, cutting back diseased branches to healthy wood, and removing root sprouts.

Among these easiest to prune fruit trees are persimmon, pawpaw, juneberry, jujube, quince, and medlar. (These are some of the uncommonly delectable fruits covered in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.) Trees such as juneberry and medlar are quite ornamental, so I also lop off or back wayward branches on these trees to keep them looking pretty.

Fruits Borne on New Shoots and/or 1-Year-Stems

The most straightforward approach to pruning those fruit trees that absolutely benefit from annual (correct) pruning is by grouping them according to their fruit-bearing habits.

Figs, for instance, are unique in being able to bear fruits on new, growing shoots.

Figlets on new growth

Figlets on new growth

So the way to prune a fig tree — with caveats — is to lop back branches, which promotes new, fruit-bearing shoots. But not too, too far or the fruit will take too long to begin ripening. I prune branches of my potted or greenhouse Brown Turkey fig trees only as far back as their permanent trunks of a couple of feet or more in length.

Also, not necessarily all the stems should be pruned back on figs, because some varieties also — or only — bear fruit on one-year-old stems. My San Piero fig, for instance. I typically leave some one-year-old stems to bear an early crop, and drastically shorten others for the crop on new, growing shoots, which begins ripening later.

Peach and nectarine trees also bear on one-year-old stems, so are also pruned rather drastically.Peach blossoms I shorten some branches to promote new shoot growth for next year’s harvest. I also remove some branches completely to prevent congestion, allowing branches to bask in sunlight, and breezes to dance among them. When finished, you should be able to throw a cat (figuratively) through the branches without touching them.

Fruits Borne on 1-Year + Older Stems

Fruit trees that bear their fruits on one-year-old as well as on older wood are the next grouping, and include plum, apricot, sweet, and tart cherry. The clusters of flower buds on branches of these trees are known as spurs. (Be careful not to put too much general meaning in “spur” because the word parades under a number of guises in the world of gardening.)

Clusters (spurs) of blossoms on plum

Clusters (spurs) of blossoms on plum

Pruning fruit trees removes some flower buds and potential fruits, which is all for the good because it lets the plant funnel more of its flavor-producing energy into fewer fruits so that those that remain are tastier and larger. Cherries, each of whose small fruits demand little energy, benefit the least of these fruits from such pruning so are the least pruned of the fruits in this category.

Apricot gets the most pruning in this group because its fruit spurs are borne on branches up to 3-years-old. That leaves plums, which get a moderate amount of pruning.

And Even Older Fruit-Bearing Stems

Apples and pears, the final grouping, are the most common tree fruits. Their individual branches each continue to bear flowers and fruits for many years.

Pear sput

Pear spur

Look at an older apple or pear branch and along it you see small, branching stems an inch or less long. These stem clusters are called — and I warned you — “spurs.”

Because their spurs live and bear for a decade or more, apple and pear trees require the least pruning of the fruit trees mentioned.

Then again, spurs do age, eventually becoming overcrowded and decrepit. So I thin out and shorten old spurs so that each has sufficient space and is periodically invigorated with stubby, new growth.

Thinning apple spurs

Thinning apple spurs

Exuberant, vertical shoots, known as watersprouts, often pop up on apple or pear branches. Mostly, they are unwanted because they’re not very fruitful and, left alone, will shade other parts of the tree. I cut these off right to their bases.

Pear watersprouts

Pear watersprouts

Even better is to grab hold of watersprouts when you first notice them growing and rip them off with a quick downward pull. “When noticed,” in contrast to all the pruning I just wrote about, is not during the dormant season.