Pruning, simplified

With apologies to Lewis Hill, and his wonderful book.

I have 21 fruit trees scattered over two acres. Young or old, no matter what the type or variety, they all need to be pruned to fully realize their potential. Abandoned apple orchards line the highways in some parts of Maine, where cider was an economic force till the great Baldwin freeze of 1890. These trees have grown into gnarled and lichen covered thickets that bear no fruit and die from the inside out – so congested with their own growth that light never reaches the inner branches. Proper pruning allows light to reach every leaf, conserves the energy and flow of sap to productive branches, increases air circulation to discourage mildew and fungus development and keeps the fruit within reach of the gardener.

This weekend I took on the Seckel pear tree in the dooryard. Mature specimens of this variety can reach 50′ – although probably not in Maine. The tree is growing under my power lines so I am very conscientious about pruning this particular specimen.

You’ll need a good pair of pruning shears and a whet stone, a fine toothed tree saw, a pair of loppers and a “reach pruner”. I really, truly try to avoid getting on a ladder, but I do own an aluminum 8′ step ladder for trees that have lost control. Remember not to cut the branch down to the very end – leave the “collar” behind.

Here are the rules:

1. Remove dead or damaged branches

2. Remove branches that cross another branch or the trunk

3. Remove branches that grow straight up. You want a level or even downward slope

4. Shorten the remaining branches to the length required, but cut just above a leaf that is facing the way you want the branch to grow.

5. Stand back and look at the tree. Does it need to be shaped in any particular way? Cutting back hard encourages growth (although that doesn’t seem intuitive). Prune harder in the direction you want the tree to grow.

6. Pick up all the prunings. Dispose of them far from your trees, or bag or burn them. Leaving dead bits lying around encourages pests and fungus.

7. One additional rule that is all mine: if a part of the tree is too complicated to figure out this year, it will only be more complicated a year from now. See if you can cut that part out.

Get a good book on pruning fruit trees for your area. This is a field that folks before us have put in a great deal of time and effort to figure out – take advantage! And remember to sharpen your tools.

These photos are not very clear in a “branch by branch” fashion, but they do show the difference in size – before and after.

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