With spring so late coming this year, are you just now beginning to think about your dormant fruit trees? How do yours look? Are they scraggly or carefully shaped? Keeping fruit trees attractive and productive requires annual pruning. Late winter is the best time to prune them. 

Modern Farmer recommends a three step method for dealing with most fruit trees.

1. Clean up – start by pruning away dead, damaged or diseased wood. Are sprouts coming from the base of the tree trunk? These suckers need to be removed. Often they come from the rootstock of grafted trees and provide no value. Also, if you see suspiciously straight sprouts growing up from some of the main branches, known as water sprouts, get rid of them as well.

With these clean up cuts, it is important to prune the branches back flush to the larger limb they’re growing from. Don’t leave little stubs.

2. Thin Out – the goal of these cuts is to allow light and air into the tree canopy, boosting fruit production and reducing problems with pests and disease. The plan is to remove any branches that grow downward, toward the center of the tree or that cross paths with another branch. Next look at the spacing of the branches. You want to have them spreading out in a pleasing spiral from the center. Do you see multiple branches growing from a single notch as a tight angle, or from different points in parallel? Thin out all but one branch in these areas. Keep the healthiest looking one with the best crotch angle (roughly the 2 o’clock-10 o’clock angles) from the center of the tree. Trim until there is a good 6 – 12” of air space around every branch. Select four branches, each growing in a different direction, creating a scaffold pattern. Repeat this pattern at the end of each year’s growth and the tree grows taller you will have a nice whorl pattern. All these cuts should be flush to the branch.

3. Head Back – giving the tree a haircut. The goal here is to prune back the outermost growth of the tree so the branches become shorter and thicker as they grow. This also activates the trees hormones that stimulate growth lower in the canopy, making for smaller, more fruitful trees. Heading back means cutting off 20-30% of last year’s growth. Look for the bud scale scars (wrinkles rings of bark encircling the stem) located any where from a few inches to several feet back from the tip of each branch. These cuts will be made part way into each branch. Prune each branch back to a point 0ne-quarter inch above a bud that faces in the direction you want that branch to grow in the coming year. Make these cuts at an angle to eliminate sprouts coming out at the cut. (It’s a plant hormone thing). 

There is another thing to consider when pruning fruit trees. How old does the wood need to be before you can expect fruit? Not many trees bear fruit on first year wood. Fig trees bear on first year wood and a second crop on second year wood later in the fall. Mulberry ad persimmon trees also bear fruit on first year wood. Peach, nectarines fig and quince trees bear fruit on second year wood. In the case of peaches and nectarines, that second year wood has a reddish-green color. Pruning these trees will encourage them to grow new branches that will fruit their second year. Apple, pear, cherry, pomegranate and plum trees have long-lived spurs that last up to 10 years. Spurs are about 6 inches long and grow from lateral branches, and bear fruit. Don’t cut them off, this will reduce your fruit harvest.

Fertilization should take place right before buds break, but can be added until June. Don’t fertilize in the late summer or fall because the new growth put on by the tree can be damaged by frost. Not all trees need fertilizer every year. Measure the growth of last year’s branches (distance from those bud scale scars to the tips) to get an annual growth rate for the tree. Peaceful Valley Farm Supply has a reference chart. If your tree’s growth is on the low end, fertilizer is required. Use an organic, high nitrogen fertilizer. Bone meal, soybean meal, composted chicken manure, cottonseed meal, or feather meal are good organic nitrogen sources. They also have instructions on how to figure out the amount needed and how to apply it. Once you have finished fertilizing, spread an inch of compost over the top and water well.

Make sure your shears are sharp for clean, easy cuts. As a measure of disease prevention, dip the blades of your pruning shears in a solution of isopropyl alcohol for 30 seconds to disinfect them before moving to the next tree. Be sure to clean up the pruned wood from around the tree and dispose of it.

Billie Nicholson, Editor
April 2018

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