The new year brings a fresh opportunity to prune fruit trees to benefit their health and structure. I reached out to a fellow pruning enthusiast, Doug Van Allen, a Jefferson County Extension Master …
The new year brings a fresh opportunity to prune fruit trees to benefit their health and structure. I reached out to a fellow pruning enthusiast, Doug Van Allen, a Jefferson County Extension Master Gardener, home fruit grower, and volunteer pruner at the Blue Heron School Orchard. I’ve turned the pen over to Doug this month to share his expertise and advice.
It’s getting on toward mid-winter, the ideal time to prune most fruit trees. After the early winter freeze, trees are dormant and the leaves are off, so we can see and understand a tree’s structure and how it might be improved. In addition to influencing the structure, making sure there is good light penetration and air circulation can improve fruit ripening and may reduce pest and disease problems. Pruning may also make harvesting easier.
Your pruning approach should take into account the type and age of wood that bears fruit, which varies with the type of tree. For example, most apples, apricots, and pears produce fruit on long-lived spurs, but some produce on the previous season’s spurs and shoots, so it’s important to know which varieties you have in your home orchard. Peaches, quince, and hazelnuts produce their crop on one-year-old wood, and they benefit from pruning because it stimulates new wood formation for future production.
Before getting started, you’ll need a few essential tools.
A sharp bypass hand pruner is a must. Ideally, it will have a belt scabbard so that it’s always with you while pruning. Do not use anvil pruners, as they have a tendency to crush rather than cut tree fibers, which can lead to disease and insect damage.
The companion to hand pruners is a sharp long-handled bypass lopper for medium size branches and those that are a bit out of reach. For larger branches, a pruning saw is handy. Saws come as both fixed blade and folding, with many people preferring the folding type so they can slip them into a pocket. A sharp pruning saw can make quick work of branches up to 3-plus inches (a household saw is not recommended).
Finally, if you’re working on trees taller than 6 to 8 feet, a three-legged orchard ladder is the safest way to get up in a tree, and of course it’s critical to observe all ladder safety instructions.
One last word on cutting tools: To avoid spreading fungal or bacterial infections, sanitize cutting surfaces with alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or another household disinfectant every time a new tree is worked on.
There are two kinds of pruning cuts; a thinning cut and a heading cut. About 80 to 90 percent of your pruning will consist of thinning cuts to remove an entire shoot or branch back to the point where it originated. When making the cut, don’t cut flush to the original branch or trunk, but rather just to the outside of the branch collar (the swollen area at the base of the branch). Conversely, don’t leave a stub that extends beyond the collar. The branch collar has specialized cells that allow a tree to compartmentalize the damage and prevent rot from entering the heartwood of the tree.
A heading cut removes the tip of a branch (up to one-half the length) to encourage growth of side branches at the point of the cut and below it. A slightly angled cut should be made 1/8-inch above a bud that is pointing in the direction future growth is desired.
The first order of business with all tree and shrub pruning is to cut out all dead, damaged, and diseased growth, followed by removal of branches that are crossing other branches or shading lower branches. Once the first step is completed, a more accurate picture of what else needs to be done to encourage good light exposure and air circulation will emerge along with any necessary work to keep the tree to a manageable size.
Stepping back to observe the tree is a helpful exercise, noting the overall shape to determine if the main branches form a bowl or if there’s a central leader with lateral branches coming off of it. Keep in mind that 25 to 30 percent of live wood is the most that should be removed from a mature fruit tree in a year. It’s best to prune moderately every year. Young trees should be pruned very lightly for the first few years to create a strong framework. If a tree has been neglected for many years, it may take three to five years to develop a good balance of growth and fruit production.
Tree pruning is both an art and science. There is no one “perfect” way to work with fruit trees. Luckily, most fruit trees are fairly forgiving of mistakes as long as you continue to observe what happens and maintain good habits with correct pruning cuts, sanitation, and ongoing observation.
For additional guidance, free publications are available from WSU: Pruning Tree Fruit–the Basics extension.wsu.edu/maritimefruit/pruning-tree-fruit-the-basics/ and Pacific Northwest Extension: Training and Pruning Your Home Orchard extension.oregonstate.edu/pub/pnw-400.
The WSU Master Gardener Foundation’s virtual Yard & Garden Lecture Series runs through Feb. 12. Visit http://jcmgf.org/ for the speaker list and ticket information.
(Barbara Faurot is a Jefferson County Master Gardener and Master Pruner, working with other volunteers who serve as community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship.)
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