From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on March 10, 2004

Come Early Spring, We Must Prune to Renew.

Fed up with the prolonged cold? Tired of winter? You've poured through the seed catalogs that keep arriving, and maybe you've had your fill of the ads promising delivery of live plants just in time for planting.

You may have started some seed trays indoors, but it's too soon to do much outdoors, no? Maybe you could get some peas in? But, wait! As the days become noticeably longer, you know you've got to satisfy that itch and do something productive outdoors. Prune those apple and pear trees! Now is the optimum time. Wait for a beautiful day, and go to it.

Your trees will thank you with a harvest of larger, healthier, and more colorful fruit. This not only applies to apples and pears, but blueberries, grapes and raspberries, too. Stone fruits like peaches, plums and cherries should wait until just after flowering in early summer.

I'll try to cover a lot of ground here. I'll tell you what pruning is, why we should prune, why now, how best to accomplish this, and why not to worry. But first, a brief offering about plants' basic needs, so that we're all on the same page. For any plant to maintain maximum health and vigor, it requires an acceptable soil structure, texture, drainage and pH. It also needs a sufficient nutrient supply and adequate room for root and above ground expansion, moisture and light, and reduced negative impacts from insect, disease, mechanical and environmental damage.

Pruning is the removal of specific plant parts to benefit the whole plant. It can also serve to satisfy the owner's (pruner's) desire to achieve a particular shape or form, such as espalier or other chosen form. It usually becomes a regular part of the plant's maintenance.

We prune fruiting plants for several reasons: In the case of young or newly planted fruit trees, to train them to a single, central, vertical leader. Next, we wish to establish strong scaffold branches as near to the horizontal as possible, radiating from the leader as the compass points and separated from each other by at least twelve to fifteen inches vertically. If purchased from a reputable nursery, it has already benefited from quite a bit of training before coming to market.

In the case of mature fruit trees (I inherited several when we bought our house here in Sundown), we prune for reasons other than training (it's too late for that, and we have to live with, or correct, what we can). Neglected trees often provide inferior fruit, with poor color, size and quality. Insect and disease incidence is usually relatively high. Shaded limbs and branches are weak and die. Our goal is to bring them back into fruitfulness. We prune to allow better light penetration to interior branches as well as better air flow. Improved air drainage reduces the incidence of fungus problems. Improved light to branches and fruit increases resistance to insect and disease problems, and usually provides better branch and fruit vigor throughout.

We prune to renew fruit bearing wood. Apples and pears, and even stone fruits like plums and sweet cherries, produce most of their fruit on very short shoots called spurs. These are readily identifiable and occur on branches three years of age or older. Look at your trees in fruit and you'll see what spurs look like. This is what we want to develop and cultivate. The best way to do this is to thin out older weak branches and limbs to favor new shoot growth. Get rid of downward growing branches and branches that grow vigorously upright with abundant vegetative growth. These latter are often referred to as water sprouts or suckers. They rob the tree of vigor, as well as shade reproductive growth and inhibit the flow of air.

Always prune to favor scaffold branches.

Prune at any time when the job is to remove broken, damaged, diseased or infected plant parts. As soon as noticed is better that waiting.

A word about tools. Shears, loppers, saws are all appropriate to use. They should be clean and sharp. If you even suspect any part of the tree you're pruning is diseased or infected, sterilize your pruning tool by wiping it with a 10% bleach and water solution in between each cut. I bring a pale of solution with me. You won't regret this extra step. Two years ago, I narrowly escaped serious injury. I was up in my apple tree with a chain saw. The tree needed major renovation. The limb to be removed was overhead and nearly out of reach. Please, hire a professional if the scope of the job is beyond you. At the very least, use a pole saw and don't work alone. Mea culpa. I have got to get over my independence and ask my wife, Diane, to be by my side. Or my son, Daniel, who'd rather be snow-boarding.

We are pruning to regulate growth, flowering and fruitfulness in our favor.

So, how do we go about this, given what we already know? Before I go into that, let me touch on why we should be pruning now. First, there are virtually no pathogens active at this time of the year, so we needn't worry about infections getting a foothold if the tree is healthy. Second, the tree is setting up to break dormancy in the coming weeks as temperatures warm and the photo-period signals it to do so.

This means simply that the healing process is both physical and chemical, and any pruning cuts and wounds will rapidly callus over and be fine. The third, and perhaps the best reason to prune now is because we can see so much more when the tree is without its foliage.

Now, onto the process. This may, at first, seem bizarre, but it works very well. You did choose a nice day, relatively mild, relatively warm and sunny? Go inside the tree and lie down next to the trunk. Look up. Do this from the compass points, I mentioned earlier. What you will see from each vantage point are lots of smaller branches that can make no contribution to the tree whatsoever. They will, for the most part, be light starved and a drain on the tree's overall vigor. These should all be removed. Branches growing toward the center of the tree should be removed for the same reason. That's not where the action is! Note also, branches that cross one another. Whether they rub one another or not (a potential injury site), one should be removed, usually the lower one which will be shaded by the upper.

In any case, remove the subordinate of the two branches. If you're working with a partner, he/she may tie little ribbons around branches or even limbs to be removed.

With what I call the "inside work" now done, step back and take a look at the tree from a little distance. Imagine a shape that pleases you. With your partner and the ribbon handy, plan to remove anything that protrudes outside your "chosen shape". Keeping the "chosen shape" in mind, remove branch tips inside the "shape" so it can fill out . Here's the tricky part, so read this over a few times. Each branch has one terminal bud and many lateral branches. Terminal buds grow out and away from the center. When you cut a terminal bud, new buds form below the cut. Be brave, a little reckless, a little daring.

This brings me to the" why not to worry part". Today is, Beth's, my niece's birthday. I called this morning, but wound up leaving a message on the machine. I'm not a horoscope person, but since we are both the same sign, I read today's, and it suggested that we, both of us, brainstorm with friends, and experiment with our looks. In fact, that's part of the message I left with my happy birthday greetings. I've been unhappy with a bad haircut I got months ago. This morning, after leaving Beth my birthday wishes, I got a pair of sharp scissors and cut off the offending strands. You know what? It looks better already. And, you know what else, it'll grow back strong as ever. So will your apple and pear trees. Not to worry.

A footnote: If you've done everything according to the record, and you're still plagued with problems or poor fruitfulness, there is hope. Fruit trees do not, I repeat , do not, want a lot of fertilizer, especially nitrogen. Your goal is to keep them wanting to reproduce, so something akin to starvation is better than providing them with loads of food. Your goal is to keep them in the reproductive mode, not the vegetative mode. This was taught to me many years ago by Warren Stiles, Dept. of Fruit and Vegetable Science, N.Y.S. College of Ag. and Life Sciences, Cornell U. If problems that are not environmental or insect and disease related persist, I suggest, before fertilizing, a soil test and a leaf analysis. Cornell University, or Cooperative Extension can assist in this effort.

Prune! The verb, not the noun, is the word of the season.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on March 10, 2004

© 2004 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.