Garden? What garden? In March there’s not a lot of ground that isn’t snow-covered, icy or soggy, but the onset of official spring and the lengthening days mean that there are promising warm days when an antsy gardener can tromp about outside in muck boots and inspect the troops. It’s a particularly perfect time of year to look at leafless fruit trees, hedges and shrubs, with an eye to pruning them.

Before you start getting out the hand pruners, loppers or saws, be forewarned there are some trees and shrubs that should be left alone right now. Early-spring bloomers such as forsythia and lilacs, quince and azaleas, rhododendrons and ornamental fruit trees produced their flower buds in the previous season, so by pruning them now you’ll lose their blossoms this spring. Sometimes this isn’t a real disaster; I’ve pruned out forsythia that resembled Monet’s haystacks and still had plenty of flowers, and also had lots of prunings to bring inside for forcing, but it’s best to wait until after blossoming to prune these plants. Unfortunately, by that time, things are so busy that another year will go by without that haircut, so it’s your call.

There are still plenty of other plants you can fuss with, if you’re determined to be out there in the warming sun: evergreens, those old overgrown apple trees, dogwoods and viburnums. The apple and dogwood can also be coaxed into blooming inside, although as a rule of thumb, the larger the blossom, the longer forcing will take. 

The primary reasons for pruning trees and shrubs are to shape them and to remove crossing branches and any that are touching the ground or are weak or spindly, as well as old or diseased wood, but from the prunings, you’ll probably be able to select some branches for forcing. Save the ones that are less than half an inch in diameter and cut them to the desired length. If you want forcing material, prune on a mild day when the temperature is above freezing. Branches and buds are softer and more pliable then and will be better able to make the transition from cold outdoor temperatures to warm indoor temperatures. Choose branches with lots of plump flower buds. Flower buds are round and fat, whereas leaf buds are smaller and pointed, although some green-leafing branches are striking in vases. Sugar maple prunings produce chartreuse tassels, while red maple’s are burgundy, and both mix well with flowering branches.

If you have badly overgrown apple trees, pruning them can make a big improvement in their fruit down the line, maybe not picture-perfect for eating out of hand, but great for cider and pies. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin but, basically, you want to open up the middle of the tree so that sun reaches all of the branches, and you also want to remove branches growing in the wrong direction: anything turning straight up or downward, and those that cross or rub on other branches. Arborists say that one should be able to throw a softball through a well-pruned tree. At the same time, most say that no more than one-third of the tree’s volume should be removed at one time.

It’s fairly easy to spot dead or damaged branches, which have dark and shaggy bark, and these must also be cut away. Also remove suckers — those branches growing from the base of the tree — and water sprouts, the thin branches that usually grow straight upright. Once all of these have been culled, you can more easily see the true structure of your tree and decide where to make the next cuts. Usually there are up to a half dozen heavier, upright branches that you’ll want to retain. If you want to reduce tree height, selectively cut to the branches growing more horizontal to the ground. Thin out excessive branches as well. Remember, you’ll probably have to go back in and prune away water shoots that will inevitably spring up from a heavy pruning job, and you’ll probably have to do this for several years before you have a tree that bears fruit again. 

If you have an overgrown hedge, a lot of the same pruning techniques that you’d use to restore an old apple tree apply. When pruning an out-of-shape arborvitae or privet your objective is still to direct growth, allow light and air to reach the plant and remove damaged and diseased branches. Don’t think about going in with electric hedge trimmers and giving it a military-style trim. Trimmers just top the shrub, encouraging new growth near the cut. Instead, use loppers or hand pruners to remove growth you don’t want, then thin out spots of thick outer cover. To give the inner limbs air and sunlight, cut back along the branch just above new growth or at the plant base. Remove suckers and watershoots and any dead limbs near the base. Avoid making the top of the shrub wider than the base, because you want sunlight to reach the entire plant, including the bottom. Cut only about a third of a shrub each year, just like those apple trees. It may seem like you’ve cut a few holes early in the season, but most holes you create will fill in with new growth and eventually make the hedge fuller and stronger.