One of the most common questions I hear this time of year is “When should I prune my trees”. The simple answer is anytime the temperature is above 18 degrees F. As a young contract pruner in the apple orchards of north central Washington, I would wait impatiently with the pruning crew in the early January and February mornings until the orchard owner confirmed the temperature had risen above 18. The wood is too brittle below that mark and cuts would crack the wood during the cut. (Over the years, the steady rise in winter temperatures has pretty much erased that concern).
The crew of mostly Mexican and Native American workers taught me a great deal about pruning: how to choose an orchard that would allow me to actually make a bit of money if I worked hard enough; how to minimize the number of cuts while maximizing fruit production; how to climb a tree instead of using the unwieldy ladder and pole lopper; and most importantly, how to make it through day after exhausting day with reverence for the earth and joy in my heart.
On most of the orchard crews I worked on, I was one of just a handful of gringos. I’m really not sure how I adapted to such strenuous activity – I sure wasn’t raised in that mold – but the joy of working with trees lifted my spirit and hardened my body. And the joy and exuberance of my fellow workers found voice often from the top of a distant tree: “Viva la (deleted)!” was answered in kind from near and far throughout the orchard. We all smiled and laughed.
So prune your trees now, unless we get temperatures more common in the distant past. And do it right, with very sharp tools. Hire an expert or learn to do it yourself. Brief tutorials are here: Pruning Basics and Dormant Pruning.