by Jonathan Teller-Elsberg
As days get longer and thoughts of spring bloom, it’s time to start preparing for the season ahead by pruning your woody plants. Pruning provides several benefits: eliminates damaged or diseased wood; shapes your plant to maintain pleasing aesthetics and promote improved fruit set; keeps fruiting plants at a harvest-friendly size; ensures yearly flowering (unpruned plants sometimes alternate between years of heavy and light flowering/fruiting); and provides a supply of wood suitable for a variety of uses.
Most woody plants benefit from pruning during winter dormancy. Especially with this unusually mild winter, it’s important to get it done sooner rather than later. Fruit trees and shrubs will bear more consistently, and produce higher quality fruit, if pruned properly before spring thaw. There are exceptions—some plants, such as pines, should be pruned in summer, so don’t run out willy-nilly without further research.
The first rule of pruning is to cut out any sick or dead wood to prevent the spread of disease. The second rule is to ensure clean cuts (by using the correct, well-maintained tools) and to cut in the right place. If you are cutting off a branch, that means close to the base of the branch you are eliminating, but not too close. At the base of every branch is a collar, and you must leave this collar unharmed so that it can grow over the cut and seal the wound. If you leave too much extra wood, the collar can’t get around it. If you are shortening a branch, that means making your cut just slightly above a growth bud and cutting at an angle so that water runs off the wound (thus avoiding rot).
Numerous print and online resources give details on when and how to properly prune different species, giving specifics for your goals. Less often supplied are ideas for what to do with the wood that results. Larger diameter wood can be burned in the fireplace or inoculated with fungal spawn to grow edible or medicinal mushrooms. Thinner wood can be chipped and used as mulch or as “brown” matter in compost piles. Wood chip mulch is especially valuable around woody plants and herbaceous perennials, as it encourages healthy populations of beneficial fungi in the soil. Consider leaving a few brush piles of prunings here and there in your garden—these add diversity of habitat to your property, encouraging greater diversity of birds, amphibians, and insects. Another option is to build a hugelkultur raised garden bed. This consists of a pile of wood (anything from logs to sticks, but avoid rot-resistant woods like cedar), buried under a layer of soil. The wood effectively composts in place over several years, providing a steady supply of nutrition to the plants growing on the bed.