Now’s the time to prune shrubs before spring growth begins

Lee pruning his blueberries

Lee pruning his blueberries

In years past, when I went outdoors this time of year, it was usually with skis strapped to my feet. Or wearing snow boots. Or snowshoes. With this snowless, warm winter, I’m mostly going outdoors these days armed with pruning shears, a lopper and a pruning saw. Mostly, my feet trod a path to the hardy kiwifruit vines and the blueberry bushes.

At first glance, the blueberries seem nothing more than a jumbled mass of stems of various ages. How to make order out of this jumble? Quicker to answer is: Why go to the trouble of making order out of this jumble? The same could be asked for my lilac bush, mock orange, hazelnuts, gooseberries and currants.

Then I remind myself that my goal is to reduce the crop – yes! reduce the potential crop – so that more of the each fruit or nut bush’s resources get channeled into fewer fruits or nuts, so those that remain taste better. I also prune for future years’ harvests or, for flowering bushes, future years’ flowers. And I prune to let the stems of all bushes bathe in light and air, which reduce pest problems.

Bushes are bushes because they are bushy – that is, they’re constantly growing new stems at or near ground level and never develop permanent trunks (except for daphne, fothergilla, witch hazel, PeeGee hydrangea, tree peony and other plants of bushy stature with long-lived stems). Blueberries and most other bushes, ornamental and fruiting, are pruned by a renewal method. As stems age, they grow decrepit, producing fewer flowers or fruits; pruning away these oldsters right to the ground makes way for younger replacement stems.

My first cuts on any of my blueberry bushes are the most dramatic ones: I cut down a couple or so of the oldest stems, using a lopper or pruning saw. Blueberry stems are typically worth keeping until they are about seven years old, or about an inch in diameter. These most dramatic cuts also remove the tallest stems in one fell swoop, so the bushes never grow so tall that the berries are out of reach.

The kind of shrub, the variety of shrub and the previous season’s growing conditions all conspire to determine how many new stems, called suckers, grow from or near ground level. Often, it’s so many that as they mature, the bush becomes congested. So now I take pruning shears in hand and reduce their numbers to – in the case of blueberry bushes – four or five.

The finished bush then (in theory) has about four six-year-old stems, four five-year-old stems and so on, down to four one-year-old stems. By this time next year, each of those stems will have moved up a year in age. I’ll remove the four now-seven-year-old stems and excess one-year-old stems, which are those that will have grown this season.

Oh, one more step: I go over each bush with my pruning shears, removing small or dead twigs and shortening stems that are out of bounds. With 16 bushes cramped into 900 square feet, “out of bounds” is pretty close.

As so often happens in late winter and early spring, and especially this year, weather is very variable. Today was sunny and, by winter standards, balmy: perfect for crawling in among the blueberry bushes to prune them. But no need to twiddle my thumbs on sunless days raw with cold. There are seeds to be sown.

Some people spend the first part of summer hankering to bite into their first ripe tomato. Even more than tomato, I eagerly await my first fresh cucumbers and peppers. Like tomatoes, both get a head start indoors.

This year, after seeing the very early cucumber crop at the Evolutionary Organics farm down the road from me, I thought that I would give early cukes a try here at the farmden. On Kira the farmer’s advice, I planted seeds a couple of weeks ago into potting soil in four-inch plastic flowerpots.

Cucumbers revel in heat, both for seed germination and for growing. So, after being watered, the seeded pots went onto the greenhouse’s electrically heated seed mat that’ll keep the seeds at a cozy 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Seedlings are up, their roots still in pots and still being warmed by the heating mat.

Within a couple of weeks, the cuke seedlings will start to outgrow their pots and need planting in the ground – not outdoors, though, but in the greenhouse. As I wrote, I’m hankering for a very early harvest. I’ll take the soil temperature, which, I hope, will stay steadily above 65 degrees by then.


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, visit our website at

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