I have today off from work which means quick – prune the fruit trees! No company, no huge dinner to make (our hot water heater quit after >10 years so dinners lately have been sandwiches on paper plates), and it’s not quite raining yet, so off we go.
I’ve heard complaints about how complicated it is to prune a fruit tree. It’s not complicated. It’s a lot of work, especially if the tree has been badly pruned at the start or neglected, but it’s not complicated. Our forebears managed fine and many of mine weren’t particularly bright, so there you go.
Here are the rules.
- Wait for a nice day. I’ll tell you right off that I break this one all the time. My day job takes most of the sunny dry days with only a light breeze because that’s the way things happen. Today the weather is foggy, damp, and humid with thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. If you have a bad fungus infestation or a lot of larvae, pruning under those conditions might spread the bad stuff around. If that’s the only day you have to work, I’d argue that a good pruning might get rid of the problem, or at least limit the damage.
- Prune out branches that cross each other. Choose the best candidate to leave (healthiest growth, best direction, most fruit) and cut the conflicting branch. You want sunlight and air movement to the very center of the tree. The old Maine standard is to “prune until you can throw a cat through the branches”, presumably without injuring the cat.
- Try for horizontal growth, for stability and best fruiting. Different trees have different growth habits, so we try to influence rather than dictate this one.
- For most trees, and assuming a healthy amount of growth in an average year, try to prune lightly one year and heavily the next. You should be able to tell from the condition of the tree if it needs more than a light grooming in an off year.
- Keep your Felcos in your pocket. Maybe that damp day when the sap is running high in March is a bad day to make cuts, but if you see a small problem it’s a good idea to nip it in the bud. There’s a reason that’s a cliche.
- If you make a mistake, it will grow back. Better to make a bad decision or two during the learning process than have a garden full of trees with snarled branches and no fruit.
Here’s a photo of the Seckel pear that I’m pruning heavily today. I can never seem to get a good shot of a tree’s structure, but I’ll let the pile of prunings (destined for hugelkultur) speak for itself.
As a bonus, if you use only passive controls on your fruit trees, such as Tanglefoot and Surround, you can safely grow crops right up to the canopy. That’s some happy lettuce in the foreground.