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When is the best time to prune?

Peach tree

On warm, sunny days in January and February, I itch to be out in the garden, so I often turn to pruning. However, last winter, I felt like my wintry pruning bout may have been responsible for killing off the spring shoots of our everbearing raspberries, so this year I decided to research before pruning.

Unfortunately, the conclusion I drew after reading several scientific articles was...it's complicated. Winter hardiness is affected by a variety of factors, including how dormant the tree is at the time, the recent air temperature, the plant's maturity, and more. So, although most orchardists agree that fall pruning will lower your fruit plants' winter hardiness for months afterwards, few are willing to go out on a limb and give you a firm date after which it's safe to prune during the dormant season. In fact, the data made me wonder whether, from a tree-health point of view, you wouldn't be better off waiting to prune until after the tree's flowers have opened in the spring.

Peach buds

On the other hand, pruning not only makes a tree less winter hardy; it also makes the tree's flowers more sensitive to cold. Critical temperatures for peach blossoms, for example, can vary by as much as ten degrees based on factors that include the temperature just before the freeze and whether the tree has been recently pruned. So maybe we really shouldn't be winter pruning at all and should stick to the summer pruning and training that has become much more of a staple on our farm.

But, on the third hand, there's just so much more time for careful pruning at this time of year than there is in the summer when every plant is breathing down my neck and asking for attention. So, I'll probably winter prune anyway, maybe taking Lee Reich's advice of pruning in February, or following the Iowa State University guideline of pruning between late February and early April. Because, after all, we do have to compromise between what's best for us and what's best for the trees --- and what's best for me is to enjoy pruning under the winter sun before the vegetable garden begins to consume all of my attention.



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Just came across your blog and have started reading from the oldest archive forward. In 2008 your favorite Strawberries were Honeoye, Jewel and Ozark. Would like to know if that is still true or have you found better ones over the years? Also, do you still plant Cushaws, and, if so, what are your favorites? Thanks for any replies and I am really loving your blog.
Comment by Mimi Mon Feb 2 10:40:43 2015
Or maybe you can use the winter time to decide and mark which branches to cut when it gets warm. I know for me the deciding often takes longer than the cutting.
Comment by Anonymous Mon Feb 2 11:05:22 2015