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Wait a little longer for the intense cold to pass before pruning. Photo: <a href="">Andrew Fogg</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Wait a little longer for the intense cold to pass before pruning. Photo: Andrew Fogg, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Gardening: Is it too soon to prune?

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Martha Foley and Cornell Cooperative Extension horticulturalist Amy Ivy talk about what it is, and isn't, safe to do in your garden this early in a very chilly year, and how to simulate spring indoors.

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Reported by

Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

Is it too early to prune?

Martha Foley: Spring is on the way and I am wondering if there are some of those early spring chores outside. Is it time yet for pruning?

Amy Ivy: No, it is still on the early side for pruning, so you don't have to. All of those gardeners out there are eager to get going, it's still a little bit early yet.

When you prune, you're making a wound and so ideally if you can wait until the plant has started to wake up and the sap is flowing, then when you make the wound the cells are already starting to divide and they can start to wall off that wounded area and respond to protect themselves. When you prune in the middle of winter, when it's dead cold like it is now, the plants don't respond so you have this open wound on the tree that can dry out and crack.

There's no reason to be killing yourself freezing to death out there, and it's hard to be nimble when you have six mittens on and your fingers are half-frozen.
There's no reason to be killing yourself freezing to death out there, and it's hard to be nimble when you have six mittens on and your fingers are half-frozen and all that, There is no point in pushing yourself to do that. Home gardeners can definitely wait a little bit longer.

Also, a lot of the time when you are pruning you are also pruning out any winter injury and we may definitely see more, I'm fully expecting to see more winter injuries than usual because of the winter we've had. So you just don't know where that has happened yet so if you wait until you can start to see the buds start to swell a little.

MF: Even damage I can see from the winter, I should wait?

The rule of thumb is whenever you see something that is dead, damaged or diseased then you can take it out whenever you want, so if you want to go out when it is zero and take that out, go ahead but you could also wait until it got to be thirty and do it too.

What about plants starting to come out now?

MF: I have been tending my grape vines pretty closely the last few years and we haven't had a winter like this since I started paying such good attention to them. I am really kind of worried about the grapes.

AI: It's just too soon to know, and we also aren't out of the woods yet either because it was cold last night and again it's those fluctuations often too, it's not just that minimum temperature. We have been on such a roller coaster, this winter if something starts to grow prematurely and comes out of dormancy and then we get another really bad cold snap, that would definitely damage that new growth there.

I would say wait a little bit longer

How spring can come into your house before it comes outside

MF: We've been outside a lot skiing…and I swear I can see changes already in some of the colors that I'm seeing in the woods, kind of subtle changes, and I swear the buds are already starting to notice the days are longer pretty soon it will be spring.

AI: Especially, on the red maples, they've started to get redder and a week ago we did have a sap run at least on my side of the Adirondacks. So a lot of maple producers had a pretty good run for a few days and now it's shut back down again because of these cold temperatures.

The trees do respond, and that's where I'm still nervous about this chance for injury. Actually that happened, remember a couple of years when we had that super mild March, farther south in the Hudson Valley the apple trees actually started to come out of dormancy so when the frost came they actually lost most of their flower buds. Up where we are, it's cold enough where they started to come out but they didn't come out far enough, so we were lucky to have a crop that year when most of the state lost it.

MF: I bet it's a good time to cut some things and bring them in and force them.

AI: Yes, this would be a great time to do that. By forcing we mean cut the branches, stick them in a vase with water, and the leaves and or flowers come out and it's fun to watch that happen.

So I would take the branches, they're usually pretty long, like two to three feet long, so stick them in the bathtub [in tepid water], if you can, overnight…and then put them in the vase and that will really help to wake them. It's really fun to do and I love to do it. It's a great way to get some spring going a little earlier inside then it is happening outside.

Amy Ivy is horticulturist with the Cornell cooperative extension service of Clinton and Essex Counties.

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