A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

The Kindest Cut

by Maria Reidelbach   

Sometimes, the toughest spot to be in is when we have too much. It’s one thing to struggle to grow and maneuver to thrive—that’s certainly challenging. But when we’ve got options, it can be excruciating in its own way, because in making that choice, we are saying “no” to all those other enticing possibilities. We can get stuck in the position of trying to do it all, and that’s much more challenging that focusing our attentions and energies.

This same dynamic is at work in other parts of our lives—it’s clear that in order for children to thrive they need to have boundaries—their choices are narrowed by caring parents. Creatives know that when options are narrowed the best solutions can spring forth. And anyone who writes knows that editing—removing the unnecessary—can be the most difficult process of all.

John Wightman demonstrates apple tree pruning on a frigid
day at Wightman Fruit Farm in Kerhonkson, NY.
All of these parallels came to mind as I learned the basics of pruning plants, for which March is prime season. Even though I’m a beginner, I’ve seen the incredible effects that good pruning can have. Next to my house was a bedraggled hydrangea. The flowers were a joke—on droopy stems a few four-petaled blossoms and a couple of white dots, a

Dr. Seuss flower! The stupid bush was overgrowing my sidewalk, so I asked a gardener to trim it back. When he was done, the bush looked so stumpy, I was stunned. But the following year—what a transformation! It bloomed spectacularly—dozens of beautiful lacy cones of white froth! Amazing!

How can such seeming destruction have such a positive effect? There are many ways that pruning is beneficial. Plants left to grow on their own, if conditions are right, meaning enough sun, water, nutrition and other resources, have a huge amount of energy. Their job in life is to grow as well as possible and to reproduce abundantly. As they grow, they throw out all kinds of shoots, leaves and branches. As above, so below—there’s just as much growing underground, about a one-to-one (1:1) ratio here in the temperate zone.

Most fruit is formed at the ends of twigs or stems, and plants produce prodigious quantities of stems to make as many fruits with seeds as possible—and they don’t care much about the size or quality of their fruit—they are much more into sheer numbers. That’s why so many wild fruits and seeds are tiny—it took humans to invent ways to get plants to grow bigger fruits. One way is through breeding and another way is pruning. When you combine breeding and pruning with optimal care and access to resources, you get fruit that’s big, juicy, and sweet. That’s what farmers do to produce the beautiful fruit at farmstands and farmer’s markets.

When you’re growing plants for food, you are asking a lot of them. Pruning helps plants make better fruit in many ways. When branches are thinned out, more light can reach those that remain and they grow bigger. Air and light also inhibit fungal disease that prefers to lurk in the protection of shade and dampness.

Following a proper pruner, bushes like the hydrangea above
come back vigorously, with bigger blooms and/or fruit.
Pruning affects a plant’s natural vigor. “Vigor is a monster, vigor is your friend!” is an exhortation of John Wightman, of Wightman Fruit Farm in Kerhonkson. John, ace landscaper Nancy Cobb, and I spent a frigid February morning out in his orchard up to our knees in snow and surrounded by dozens and dozens of varieties of bare apple trees. John explained to us that when you change the ratio of roots to above-ground growth, massive vigor coming from the roots is channeled upward to the growth that remains. Vigor is focused by choosing which twigs will grow into branches and removing the others. You can choose to keep the branches that are the most structurally sound for a growing tree, and those that will have the strength for the seasonal weight of fruit. You can prune to expose the most fruit to sunlight to nourish and ripen it. Additionally, many plants fruit more on younger shoots, so you prune to remove old wood. John told us that it takes him almost an hour for each apple tree’s annual pruning, after which, in a good year, it will bear up to 600 pounds of apples!

There are plenty of garden plants that benefit greatly from pruning: not only fruit trees but also bushes like hazelnuts and quince, cane fruits like blackberries, vining fruit like grapes and hearty kiwis, small plants like strawberries and even annuals like tomatoes. It’s best to prune most woody plants in the very early spring because they are dormant then, you can see the structure, and as soon as they awaken they will channel all that monster vigor to the parts of the plant you have selected, which will grow like mad.

You don’t need many tools for simple pruning. Lee Reich, a garden author, speaker and consultant who lives in New Paltz, recommends a pair of bypass clippers, a lopper, and a pruning saw, for starters. Lee also points out that the most useful pruning tool is our opposable thumbs, by using your thumbnail to pinch off tiny shoots called waters prouts. John Wightman suggests a pole saw for higher cutting. For the last year I’ve been using a pruning ladder and it is the bomb! Pruning ladders are lightweight aluminum, are wide at the bottom but only about a foot wide at the top, and they have just one more leg holding them up. Sounds shaky, but this is one of the most stable ladders I’ve ever used (perfect for reaching to top of a giant gnome’s hat).

Once you’ve geared up, you’re ready to go. Different plants like to be pruned in different ways, but there are some general rules. There are two basic types of cuts. Thinning means removing a stem completely, to the attached branch or to the ground. The branch will not grow back. Thinning is a way to remove old and dead wood from a plant and allow more light and air to penetrate. Heading means shortening a stem and allowing some of it to remain. Fascinatingly, the bud at the very end of each stem is the source of a hormone called auxin that suppresses the growth of the buds along the stem. When you make a heading cut and remove that bud, the remaining buds along the side are freed and suddenly spring into growth. Heading cuts are used when the goal is to have a plant fill out with lateral branches. Additionally, you might want to remove some of the flowers to channel vigor into the remaining flowers so that the fruit is bigger, sweeter, and juicier.

If all this sounds complicated…well, it is and it isn’t. John Wightman is reassuring about being a beginner. “Don’t be afraid to prune, if you make a mistake, the plant will grow back,” he advises, “Beginners are likely to remove too little rather than too much.” However, if you really want to get into the nitty gritty, different plants respond in various ways to pruning methods, and there’s a great reservoir of knowledge about it. The best, clearest, and easiest to use book on pruning that I have found is Lee Reich’s The Pruning Book. He’s got all the general information, plus instructions and observations about hundreds of species: how to prune, how to renovate overgrown specimens, pruning in other times of the year, root pruning, and pruning container plants. Bonus points that he lives in New Paltz, gives local classes and talks, and has an amazing “farmden” where you can see masterfully pruned plants. Pruning truly is the kindest cut.

• Wightman Fruit Farm, 130 Baker Road, Kerhonkson, NY
• Lee Reich, leereich.com

Maria Reidelbach is an author and maker who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. Contact her at maria@mariareidelbach.com.