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Century old pruning practices remain relevant

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By Steve Moore

Last week, all Kentucky Extension agents and specialists attended a training conference in Lexington. We were treated to a good history of the first 100 years of the Extension Service, and challenged to continue ‘making a difference’ in peoples’ lives through relevant research-based information in the century ahead.

In the midst of trainings, which included those ‘new’ means of communication like Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and others, we had one Chautauqua type presentation about the life of the first Kentucky County Agricultural Agent. One hundred years ago, Charles Mahan began work in Henderson County. In his memoirs, Mahan recounted that farmers were not very receptive of this new guy talking about new practices learned at the Land Grant College (the UK College of Agriculture). Pretty much, the farmers indicated that the way their father and his father before him did things on the farm was good enough for them.

Then one day, an orchardist farmer called Mahan to visit because he was having low yield from the orchard. After a tour through the orchards, Mahan found that the trees needed pruning, but when he mentioned it, he got the response that the family had never pruned trees before, and didn’t think it necessary. Mahan forged ahead, however, and spent part of the afternoon teaching the farmers’ son how to prune the trees, and suggested that at least a couple of rows of the trees be pruned. He mentioned that in a couple of years, those pruned trees should out yield those not pruned.

A couple of years later, he saw that same farmer in town. Slowly, the farmer put out his hand, and as Mahan reached out to shake it, the farmer softly said ‘Thanks.’ Yes, sometimes change and the ability to trust is slow, but this story and hundreds of others like it moved the Extension Service into a creditable and prominent place in agriculture education in the state.

Even as one of the first research-based practices taught over 100 years ago was fruit tree pruning, it is still one of the important techniques we need to use today. Believe it or not, spring and the time to prune really are on the way. The winter months can be damaging to trees and shrubs. Pruning during the late winter months allows you to remove winter damage and also diseased, crowded or hazardous branches.

When pruning trees, the size of the tree should not be reduced too much in one season. Limit the pruning amount to one-fourth of the tree’s volume. Pruning in this manner allows for a healthy tree that is more open to sunlight and air movement. Do not seal or paint the wounds resulting from pruning, because this will only delay the tree’s healing process.

Spring-flowering shrubs may need rejuvenation pruning, and the best time for that is right after they flower. If you prune a shrub before it blooms, you remove buds too soon and don’t get an opportunity to enjoy those blooms. When you prune after blooming, you can still enjoy the flowers and the plant can recover, grow, and produce more buds for flowers next spring. Go ahead and prune summer flowering shrubs and trees early.

Remember that pruning is not limited to a certain time of year. You can prune at any time if you notice damaged branches and limbs. The Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service offers publications that can answer many of your pruning and other gardening and landscape questions. Online, http://www.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/ho/ho45/ho45.pdf offers information about pruning trees and http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/ho/ho59/ho59.htm offers information about pruning shrubs.

Educational programs of the Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability or national origin.