Pruning The Home Orchard
For many gardeners, pruning seems to be the most daunting chore in the
home orchard. In an effort to avoid cutting off too much, many of us end
up not cutting at all and end up with overgrown trees. Too little pruning
can result in overcrowded, unhealthy branches that produce small fruit
and/or few of them. On the other hand, severe pruning also can remove
much of the crop potential.
Not all fruit species grow the same way. Once the trees are mature enough
to flower and bear fruit, apples, pears, cherries and plums generally
tend to produce the best crop on wood that is 2-3 years of age. However,
peaches tend to produce best on 1-year-old wood. So, the goal in pruning
the home orchard is to keep a good amount of the appropriate-age wood
for that particular species.
Just like with kids and dogs, ideally you want to start training your
tree while it's young, before it has a chance to develop bad habits! Aim
to develop 3-5 main branches, starting at two feet above the ground and
spaced around all sides of the tree.
Late March is an ideal time for fruit tree pruning, allowing time to
assess the toll of winter, yet early enough to allow for fast healing
of wounds, without pressure from insect pests or disease.
Wide angles between the trunk and the branches will help open the tree
to better penetration of sunlight. You can help encourage wide angles
(about 45 degrees) with wooden or plastic sticks lodged between the trunk
and the branch, for about the first growing season. This allows more room
for side branches and more fruiting wood.
For the first few seasons, your pruning goals will include removing dead,
damaged, weak or diseased branches. You want new growth to head toward
the outside of the tree, not inward toward the trunk or other branches.
Thin out overcrowded areas where branches cross or grow the wrong direction
by removing the offending branches back to the trunk or to an outward-facing
bud or side branch.
Newly planted fruit trees may take several years before they are mature
enough to flower, and it is from these blossoms that fruit will follow,
assuming pollination is successful. Dwarf fruit trees usually start to
bear within 3-5 years, but standard sized fruit trees can take twice as
long to mature.
Keep in mind that too much of a good thing can end up being a bad thing.
Too heavy a fruit load often results in broken limbs and smaller, lower-quality
fruit. If it looks to be a heavy fruiting year, thin out the fruit to
about 6 inches apart.
Older, neglected fruit trees may take more drastic measures to make them
more productive. Pruning will help open up the tree to better light penetration
and usually results in better fruit set, as well as better quality and
flavor. It may also help bring the tree back to a more manageable height.
As with the young tree, late winter is the ideal time to take action.
First, strive to remove dead, broken, or diseased branches. Then, if needed,
lower the height of the tree by cutting back larger "scaffold"
branches, making the cut just beyond an outward-facing branch. Try not
to remove any more than 25 percent of the tree's live wood in any one
season. If more size reduction is desired, spread the pruning out over
several seasons. Thin out the remaining wood by removing the weakest branches
that are growing too close or crossing another branch, or growing toward
the center trunk. Make your cut just above or beyond a branch or bud that
is pointing in the direction you want the new growth to go, away from
the center of the tree.