Winter and early spring are the seasons when many gardeners, orchardists and farmers -- fancying themselves surgeons -- approach their trees, shrubs and roses with knives, pruning shears and saws in hand, seemingly unaware that these plants are, as the Buddhists would say, sentient beings.
Most pruning is less a conversation between two of nature's creatures and more an act of ruthless domination under the guise of necessity.
For some reason over the last few millennia we have come to believe that plants are unable to survive, bloom and fruit properly without human intervention. And while much of the painstaking breeding and hybridizing by our ancestors has provided us with an extraordinary variety of edible plants, it may be time to question some of the time-honored Western methods of plant care.
What's shocking to many people is that scientific research is beginning to reveal the utter lack of necessity for most of the one-sided surgery we call pruning. For example, a British study showed that rose bushes pruned with hedge clippers yielded as many flowers as those carefully manicured with hand pruners -- and that roses left alone yielded still more!
Where did we get the arrogant idea that we know better than the plant itself how to maximize its productivity and health? Such a strange notion, when you think about it... perhaps part of the larger delusion that nature is here merely for us to exploit without thought of the damage we may be doing to individual living beings or our biosphere.
So when might our pruning interventions actually be helpful rather than hurtful? And for whom?
The first principle of permaculture is "observe and interact" -- admirable advice in the present instance. Taking time to respectfully see how the plant itself intends to grow, bloom and fruit allows us greater insight into if, how and when to intervene.
Vintage Gardens Nursery's Gregg Lowery, heritage rose expert extraordinaire, points out that mostly we prune for our own reasons that have nothing to do with the plant in question. It's a one way conversation. For instance, we may prune to make a plant look better to our eyes, our sense of what's beautiful or "tidy." Or we may need to prune for space, when a tree or bush begins to outgrow its allotted place -- probably because we made the mistake of not allowing for full, natural growth when we planted it -- our error, not the plant's!
Rather than remove such a plant entirely, we may need to first apologize, and then gently shape it. Not just to suit our ideas of aesthetics (again, to please us, not the plant), but hopefully to benefit both the plant and our space needs.
If so, we might want to observe that traditional pruning times and methods were usually designed for Northern conditions, to protect a tender plant from winter frosts. In a warm-winter climate this isn't necessary, and yet many of us who live in Mediterranean climate zones dutifully hack away at our roses in usually-wet winters, reducing them to stubs and weakening them with radical surgery. In fact, it's usually better to do any pruning for size in the summer if possible, when lack of rain may ensure more sanitary conditions.
This whole "do no harm" philosophy of pruning owes a great debt to Japanese philosopher-farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, author of a hugely influential book called One Straw Revolution, who advocated what he called "natural farming" or what some have dubbed "The Zen of Farming," in which we refrain from digging, cutting or intervening unnecessarily in natural soil and plant systems which we truly don't understand. We also may need to refine our view of what's beautiful, to appreciate nature's own gardening style rather than the control-heavy European aesthetic.
If we do prune, perhaps we might initiate a respectful dialogue with our plants and trees, rather than a monologue. What might be helpful to the plant? Perhaps the removal of a dead or diseased limb? A limb that is rubbing against another in the wind? A sucker from below the graft (if we have a grafter plant) that is draining energy from the top growth?
Observation is the key. And listening. If we take the time to really get to know our plants, they will guide us in our care for them.