February Garden Tasks: Pruning for Renewal

This post is a bit late. Somehow it is already mid-March, but mid-February was spent pruning the fruit trees in my back and side yards. We currently have 11 fruit trees, down from 12 trees 2 years ago. There are 2 cherries, 4 apples, 3 pears, 1 plum, and 1 peach. Does that equal 11? I believe it does.

Normally, winter pruning is all about keeping the trees productive, well airated, and contained to a size that allows me to pick the fruit without falling and breaking my neck. But for the past 5 years, I’ve had a new nemesis to deal with in February.

Well, that isn’t a very nice sight, is it? Black knot has found its way into my plum trees and now the annual February pruning is that much more important because it is part of my struggle to keep my plums alive. I need to make sure that I remove every bit of black knot to give this tree the best chance in the coming year. Winter is the perfect time to spot it and remove it, as the lack of foliage makes it easy to find and the cold weather means I am (hopefully) less likely to inadvertently spread it as I prune. (Although the cold weather does make dipping my tools in bleach water between cuts more unpleasant!) When all of the knot is out, we have a mid-winter bonfire in the backyard to dispose of it, and bring out the hot cocoa to make a party of it. “We” is me and my eldest son. The rest of the family prefers to take their cocoa indoors in February.

I will eventually lose the battle with black knot. I’ve already lost one plum tree. Last spring, my husband and I removed the green gage tree, which was infected first and more severely. It perhaps would have survived another year or two, but I took it out in the hopes of saving the tree in the photo above, which is an Italian prune plum and very close to my heart. My grandmother always had a prune plum in her garden, and I can’t imagine mine without it.

As this past summer wore on, I was disappointed to see the black knots popping up everywhere on the prune plum. I’d waited too long to remove the gage. I removed the knots immediately as I found them and burned them. I missed plenty and did not find many until winter. I will keep it up for as long as I can since the fresh plums are worth the work. And I’m contemplating adding a new plum tree this spring so there will be a successor when it is inevitably time for this tree to go. It’s all part of the garden cycle. Is it sustainable, though? What are the environmental costs of growing trees that you know will last less than 2 decades at best? And providing a spot to harbor black knot? Are those costs outweighed by the fact that our plums for grandma’s traditional Plum Knoedel do not have to be shipped it? I don’t know the answers to these questions. Probably they are answers I should seek out before replanting, though.

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