The days of wine and roses they’re not, but the days of mud season offer their own odd pleasures. If it’s sunny I might put on a pair of big rubber boots and go poking around the garden, cleaning up debris that winter winds have deposited here and there. I note the appearance of spring bulbs poking up their tips. And I get out pruning tools.
Pruning is a satisfying garden job because I’m shaping a plant, working on a scaffolding that, in the mind’s eye, will soon be covered with leaves, flowers and fruit. Dormant pruning is best for most plants: Before their juices start to flow, they can’t bleed from my cuts. The work’s easier, too, with their skeletons laid bare. Most important, that work will direct and promote the season’s growth. Paradoxically, I’m destroying plant tissue so that better plant tissue will grow.
I get myself warmed up by tackling the raspberries. June-bearing raspberries should not be cut back much at this time, because they need those long canes to produce fruit. I just remove the oldest, weakest canes (that is, the stems) at ground level, leaving eight good ones per plant. Then I snip off the top foot or so of those I’ve left, so that the plants will then put their energy into the lower, more productive part of the stem. This can be done with sturdy hand pruners.
I’ll need to cut back the grape vines, too, before the buds start to swell. Like many home grape-growers, my husband and I have trained ours on an arbor, to make use of their shade in summer — the perfect natural awning — and train them we must, lest they turn into jungle. Each vine has been made to climb a sturdy iron support, then follow another iron piece — like the top of a cage — to join the house. Those pieces are connected with lengths of heavy-duty wire to support the branches. With each year’s pruning, we restrict the plants to one branch per wire, leaving just enough buds so that the greenery that emerges will fill in the spaces. It’s more instinct than science. Sometimes it goes beyond the scope of hand pruners, and we’ll grab a set of long-handled loppers, which have blades big and strong enough to cut thicker, woodier stems. Those two jobs could easily fill a day, because sunset still comes early. But the apple orchard also awaits. It too should be tackled before it leafs out. For that, both hand pruners and loppers come into play, but we’ll take along a pruning saw as well, for branches more than an inch and a half in thickness, and maybe even a pole-mounted saw for branches too high to reach safely by climbing. Our main goal will be to undo anything a tree might have done last year to inhibit fruiting, such as send up tall, unbranched “water-sprouts” that will not bear. We also eliminate crossing, inward-pointing or downward-facing branches, and any other growth that spoils the pattern of well-spaced layers of radiating branches. All of this will let in the air and light that are the trees’ best defense against pests and disease, light that will soon strengthen, to warm us all.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”