For the shear fun of it

Cicada damage (photo by Lee Reich)

Are the 6,000 acres of forest preserve behind my farmden mocking me? Almost every day, weather permitting, I grab pruning shears, a lopper and a pruning saw, and head outdoors to snip, lop or saw at least some stems or limbs from my trees, shrubs and vines. Up there in the forest, no one is doing any pruning, yet everything seems copasetic.

Let the forest laugh: My efforts here aren’t for naught. If a large limb crashes down from a forest tree, the forest as a whole is none the worse for wear. If a limb cracks off the honey locust that is supposed to shade my deck – well, that’s not good for the deck, for the health of the tree or for the desired shade. Similarly, a forest doesn’t feel the loss of one tree to pests or diseases; not so for the stately crabapple gracing a front lawn.

So I prune to help keep my trees healthy. A tree with good form is stronger, less likely to lose a limb. And if a limb does surrender to the weight of snow, a crisp pruning cut of the frayed stub leads to quick healing of the wound. I prune off any tarry black growths on my plum trees so that they can’t further the spread of black knot disease. I prune my kiwi and grapevines so that each remaining stem can bathe in the sunlight and air that is inimical to the spread of fungal diseases.

As gardeners, farmdeners and farmers, we demand more from our plants in terms of flowers, fruit and/or form than a forest does from its individual trees. Pruning, in removing some potential buds, directs a plant’s energy into fewer buds, making for more spectacular blossoms and more luscious fruits.

I prune also because it’s fun. Gardening is more than just good food, pretty plants and a chance to “work” outside with the sun warming my back. It’s also – for me at least – about watching plants respond to my ministrations, rewarding me if the response is positive and providing a learning experience if the response is negative.

In observance of the pruning season, I will be holding a Pruning Workshop at my New Paltz farmden on April 27 from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Learn the best times for pruning, the tools of the trade and how plants respond to pruning, followed by demonstrations of pruning of blueberry bushes, grape and kiwi vines, lilac bushes and other plants. Space is limited space, so preregistration is necessary. The cost is $55 per person. To register, e-mail [email protected] or call (845) 255-0417.

Last year’s invasion of cicadas has thrown a monkey wrench into my usual pruning. Cicadas don’t feed on stems, but use them as a nursery in which to lay eggs. Ms. Cicada prefers one-third-to-one-half-inch-thick stems – which is, unfortunately, the thickness of many stems on my fruit trees, most of which show at least some damage. The slits weaken the stems so that they are more likely to break off and have less energy for new growth, so can support less fruit, physically and physiologically.

Mostly, I’m going to wait to prune these plants to see what they have planned in terms of flowers. If they flower heavily (which is doubtful), I’ll shorten stems enough so that they don’t break under their weight of fruit. I’ll also reduce the number of fruits to the number that I estimate the weakened plants can support.

I’ll go ahead, more or less, with my normal pruning on stems or trees that don’t flower – probably a little less severely than usual, so that the plants can put all their energy into growing as much as possible to build up their energy reserves.

In either case, good soil enriched with plenty of compost, mulching and timely watering will provide beneficial growing conditions to put injured plants on the road to recovery.

What of the future? Those slitted stems no longer house eggs. The eggs hatched last summer, a month-and-a-half after being laid, and then the nymphs dropped to the ground. After burrowing in the soil, the next 16 years will be spent growing and feeding on roots.

Roots! My poor trees. Perhaps I should have cut off all the slitted stems last year and burned them before the eggs hatched. But that would have severely debilitated the plants. Oh well; nothing’s to be done except give the plants good growing conditions and hope for the best. As always, Mother Nature has the upper hand.

A lot of gardeners sow their tomato seeds too early, and the result is spindly plants. The time to sow the seeds is about six weeks before the average date of the last killing frost, which, around here, is April 1. No joke.

April 14 is Garden Day at Ulster County Community College, and the theme this year is “Edibles & Ornamentals.” The event runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., and the cost is $35. For more information, contact Master Gardener coordinator Dona Crawford at (845) 340-3990, extension 335.

Any gardening questions? E-mail Lee at [email protected] and he’ll try answering them directly or in his Almanac Weekly column. To read Lee’s previous “Gardener’s Notebook” columns, go to You can also visit Lee’s garden at and check out his instructional videos at For more on local homes and gardens, go to Ulster Publishing’s



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