Garden tip: When the buds swell, it’s time for winter pruning


Another marker that says it’s time to prune is forsythia. Flowering on a forsythia is considered a green light for winter pruning.

Mid-February has always been something of a landmark for me. After this point, the worst of winter is usually over. This year, the end of February was marked by a week of freezing temperatures.

Gardeners carefully monitor late winter temperatures to calculate the best time for winter (dormant season) pruning. A common indicator that the ideal time for pruning has arrived is when the growth buds begin to swell on roses and other summer-flowering shrubs.

Fruit trees are usually pruned around the same time, but over the years I have followed very light late winter pruning on my apple trees with a two-stage summer pruning, the first after the ” fruit drop” in June as the trees shed excess fruit and another in July, to maintain a compact, uncongested tree with slightly shortened new growth.

Excessive winter pruning of a fruit tree promotes creeping growth and the production of vertical “water shoots” growth. Summer pruning has the opposite effect. It helps to curb over-exuberant growth and keep a tree as compact as possible.

I do not prune my plum tree until the weather is warm, dry and sunny and after small fruits have formed. I prune the plum trees more at harvest time in late August and early September.

The calendar is no longer, if it ever was, the best guide to when to end winter pruning. Bud swelling on target plants is a more reliable indicator. Another traditional marker declaring that it is time to prune is forsythia. Flowering on a forsythia is considered a green light for winter pruning.

The flowering time of forsythia varies from year to year and by location. This year where I live the flower buds didn’t even start showing any signs of swelling until earlier this month.

One caveat: Don’t prune lilacs and other spring-flowering shrubs now. Wait until their flowering periods are over.

Blocks of ice. Margaret updated me on the progress of the hardy vegetables (kale, swiss chard, lettuce, leeks) which she sowed on November 20 in flats which she covered with used large bottomless water bottles. The seedlings were left in the open air and, despite the snow and frost during the Christmas holidays, the seeds grew and grew well.

After the freezing weather at the end of last month, Margaret emailed again to say that to her surprise the seedlings, once again exposed to -5C temperatures in the air free, “survived very well”.

Another chilling episode: While on a February stroll through my local Buckerfield store to pick up some seedling supplies, I ventured into the outdoor nursery. No new plants had arrived yet, but I spotted a lonely planter with a few tiny pots housing cute little evergreens, identified as Gaultheria – Wintergreen.

I immediately remembered an email from January from Gail, who spoke of her delight over a Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen) plant she had received and transplanted outside after enjoying it at home during the holidays.

A relative of our native salal (Gaultheria shallon), wintergreen is a much more compact, low plant with small, glossy leaves, summer flowers and red berries in the fall.

I bought three of the little plants and put them in a planter on a shelf next to the garden shed. Then came the February frost, which turned the clods into blocks of ice. As the weather warmed up and rain was at hand, I transplanted them along a path, under the female kiwi vine.

So far they seem fine. I love their neat shape, currently crimson green leaves and red tinged stems. These are creeping plants that should eventually form an ornamental carpet.

During the late February week when nighttime temperatures were freezing, I kept my little salad garden, transplanted in early fall, protected by a floating cover. When I discovered the bed at the end of the month, I found a plump Castelfranco radicchio. Brought home and rinsed, the purple-flecked cream and green leaves brought color and fine tangy notes to several salads.

Peninsula Meet. The Peninsula Garden Club will hold an in-person meeting on Monda at 7 p.m. at the Mary Winspear Center in Sidney. Diane Pierce of the Pacific Horticulture Center will talk about “lovely spring flowers and foliage.” Admission for walk-in guests is $5. COVID protocols will be in place.


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