Today was pruning day. I got through almost all of our trees and most of our bushes. Since we moved here, we’ve planted about 60 fruit and nut trees. We have some classic favorites like apples, peaches, pears, plums, and cherries. We also have some more exotic edibles like jujube, elderberry, pawpaw, Asian pear, persimmon, chinquapin, fig, hazelnut, almond, and a few others I am probably forgetting. We also have a bunch of fruit bushes like goji, aronia, seaberry, and blackberry. Then there are the vines – kiwi, wine grapes, and table grapes.
All in, we have over 200 plants that need some form of special pruning. Many of them are still small and only need light trimming. Down the road, this activity will probably take over a week. But for now I can still manage it in about a day and a half of work.
I love planting stuff and letting nature do its thing. But for cultivated fruit varieties, I have learned that pruning is critical. Pruning is kind of a party trick, like hypnosis, to convince your fruits to do what you want. Heading, as in cutting of the tops, makes the branches want to bush out below your cut. Trimming to create space between branches turns the trees full attention to the survivors.
Trees have a habit of sending lots of shoots skyward. For some reason we call those water sprouts, but I prefer to call them suckers (just like stuff that shoots up from the root base of your tree), because that’s exactly what they are in my opinion. Their purpose is to grow skyward and not to produce fruit. Since they grow so quickly, they suck up a lot of a tree’s energy resources in the process.
Admittedly, you see more of these water sprouts on trees that are heavily pruned for a low shade profile. It’s natures way of trying to make extra shade protection, I think. But, nature is running a bit behind all the fungal and leaf diseases in our area. So, if we don’t prune heavily to create an open center in, oh say, peach trees, we’ll get brown rot for sure.
Then there is also pruning for size. Standard or semi-standard root stock have a longer lifespan, but the fruit is then hard to reach. By pruning, we can make a standard tree look like a semi-standard and a semi-standard look like a dwarf.
So, that readers, is why I prune even though in my heart I wish I could just let the trees be what they want to be. To console myself for the brutalization of their natural beauty, I make a bargain with them. I tell them that in exchange for being able to prune them to meet my needs, I will offer extra care by way of mulch to protect their roots and companion plants to deter pests and promote good health. And I water when nature fails to provide.
I really just started learning to prune trees last year. I am not even remotely an expert. But I have developed a few tricks that make it easier for me to get the job done.
First, I prune for size this way I don’t do any extra work. Except for a few mature peach trees that I am retro-pruning, I can use large loppers for most of this work. I reach up and clip the tops of the branches at the highest point I can comfortably reach. For shorter trees, I cut off any shoots that are clearly too vigorous growing (and therefore suckers in terminology).
After pruning for size, then I start at the center of the tree and prune any vertical growing shoots or branches. It’s easier to get these when they are just starting than to wait and let them take off. I also take off any branches with crotches that are less than a 45 degree angle since these are liable to break off anyhow when they start bearing fruit. And I remove any damaged or obviously dead branches (which is rare since I remove them whenever I see them during the growing season).
With all that administrative work out of the way, then comes the tough work. Deciding what to keep and what to cut. This is where not being an expert slows me down. I usually circle the tree for a few minutes taking its measure. I try to peer into the tree’s future and decide what it should look like five years from now. Then I start cutting.
OK – actually, since I am still learning, the first thing I do is review pages 82-87 and 90-91 of The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips. Then with those concepts fresh in mind, I get to visioning and pruning. I have a pretty good grasp on the differences between open vase and central leader, but I still get lost on modified leaders which my cherries and plums like become.
A brilliant orchardist and great friend of mine told me that you can prune 40% of most established trees and 60% of peaches. He also told me that you should prune and thin to reduce your tree to 10% of the fruit it wants to make. Most of that comes off in the pruning process, then the rest comes off when you thin the fruits as they begin to develop. He said unless you sacrifice 90%, the other 10 % won’t ever make it to harvest. And I believe him since he has the most productive home orchard I’ve ever seen.
About a week after I prune, I go back to each tree and check my work. I find that when you prune for 7 hours in a day, you miss a few things. That will be an activity to look forward to next.
In the meantime, as you can see in the picture above, I still have more manure to move. I am about half way through the 16 yards I started with. Then it will be time to order shredded hard wood mulch. Never a dull day on the reLuxe Ranch!