Friday, March 4, 2011

“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 dwarf, ranging from seven to eleven feet tall. Even though I have a pole pruner and various long-reach pruning tools, I still carry a small stepladder 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.

As I was looking out the window and admiring the foot and a half of snow on the ground, I realized that all that snow would give me a literal leg up on pruning. If I stayed on top of the snow, that is. So I called a friend to ask if I could borrow his snowshoes. Before I heard back the weather turned frigid and an icy crust developed sufficiently strong to support my weight. Perfect. I gathered my tools – minus the stepladder – and walked tall out to the trees.

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 so are nonproductive 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 foot and a half of snow next to my dwarf trees, starting at the top was much easier.

I felt like I was hovering above the trees, looking at them from the perspective of ol’ Sol, which is a good perspective for a grower. I could more objectively see which branches were blocking light or otherwise cramping others for space. Letting more light and air in among the branches and, at the same time removing potential fruits with pruned branches, will channel channel more of each tree’s energy into perfecting those fruits that remain. Remaining fruits should be healthier, larger, and more flavorful.

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. 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 the cats haven’t beaten out paths. The cats are more randomly exploring out-of-the-way nooks and crannies.

The distinctive footprints that I’m keeping the closest eye out for are those of rabbits. 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.

I expect that no aroma remains on the tree trunks from the protective coating I concocted and applied last fall. Perhaps I’ll mix up another batch of white latex paint, water, eggs, cinnamon, and hot pepper and re-apply. Rabbit traps are thoroughly and safely (for the rabbits) buried in snow. Perhaps I’ll dig them out and re-set them.

I haven’t yet seen any sign of rabbits.

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. 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. I’m “blaming” the cats.

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