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"Ladders and Pruners" by Beth Weick, as published in North Country News, April 2012

Pruning is spring work, a seasonal task that engages us in a flurry of perennial hairdressing. For a few quick weeks each year we are the barbers and tailors of our edible landscape. Pruners in hand, with ladders, loppers, shears, and saws at the ready, we methodically move through our orchards, hedgerows, and gardens. Spring has just begun, and we are busy tending to the many cultivated fruits, nuts, vines, and berries that are the focus of our food forest zones.

Granted, most years we are perched atop crusty snow, working quickly in the cold of a morning to avoid the post-holing challenges of pruning in the mushy slush of a late afternoon. This year, though, is certainly one of ease. With bare ground and mild temperatures, there is no balancing of ladders atop ice, no waiting for the melt to see the raspberries, no snow-covered limbs of low-bush blueberries.

Pruning is one of the first outdoor tasks that we undertake as the gardening season begins each year. As such, it is accompanied by excitement at attending to living plants once more and the fresh-faced glow of days spent outside. After a winter of cold, pruning on a sunny March or April morning can elicit a ready smile.

It is, in a sense, making order out of chaos. The goals of pruning are to encourage plant and tree health, and to maximize production. As such, we are striving to shape the tree with the future in mind, directing the plant to grow into the template we have imagined for it. While many fruit and nut trees will have a central leader followed by aerial branches, smaller berry bushes have a vase-like habit. An effective pruner must be cognizant of the species with which they are working and sculpt accordingly. "Extra" branches and limbs are eliminated to maintain an open form and to foster the arrival of sunlight and air to all aspects of the given plant. Dead branches are cut off, as are suckers and waterspouts.

In all pruning work, clean cuts are a must. Effective pruning comes down to effective tools. Blades must be sharp and function with precise alignment. Cuts that are jagged or torn are slower to heal. To minimize impact on the given bush or tree, cuts should always be made at a joint. Trees, like humans, form scabs; to prevent disease and distress, attention must be made to prune with foresight and care.

Think of yourself as a co-conspirator with your particular plantings. You are part of a partnership, maximizing the potential of your edible landscape. Fruit trees, nut trees, vine fruits, and berry bushes are your legacy to future generations. Steward them well; the work and the reward offer much to enjoy.

Bethann Weick lives and works at D Acres Permaculture Farm & Education Center, a non-profit education organization. She first came to the farm in April 2008 and now focuses her work on gardening, animal husbandry, and writing. Check out her recent articles published in Small Farmer's Journal and Permaculture Activist. Learn more about the programs at D Acres by visiting www.dacres.org.

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