It’s that time of year again - time to prune the fruit trees! Although the ideal moment to prune your deciduous trees will vary depending on your climate, and your preferred pruning methods will be different from those of your neighbors, as with most gardening tasks, there are some basic principles that are good for all of us to keep in mind when we prune.
I like to prune fruit trees just as their buds begin to swell. This time of year, I walk through the orchard looking for the flat, dormant buds to begin to fatten up and become slightly fuzzy. These are the signs that tell me when it’s time to prune.
Here on the Central Coast of California, deciduous trees begin to flower in early to mid February, although the exact date varies from year to year based on the weather. The stone fruits are first to flower - cherries, plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds, followed by the trees and vines in the rose family - apples, pears and cane berries. So I prune the stone fruit first and then move on to the roses.
It’s a good idea to wait until the very end of winter to prune so that you don’t leave open wounds on the trees, because any abrasion or cut is prone to invite rot that can penetrate the wood. The plant will heal the cuts much more quickly in the spring when the sap is rising and pushing up through the wood. The only catch is that you have a fairly narrow window within which all of your pruning must be accomplished!
If you find yourself pruning once the trees are blooming and putting out leaves, it’s too late - any wood you remove will be taking away from the overall vigor of the plant (which can be good if the tree in question is mature and larger or more vigorous than you would like it to be).
Many gardeners are afraid to prune, but they don’t need to be. First of all, we need to move beyond the idea that cutting a plant is somehow hurting it. This is simply not true. In fact, cutting a plant back during its dormancy period stimulates growth in the coming season.
So where to begin? First, start with the appropriate equipment: a sharp, well-made pair of pruning shears, a pair of durable gloves, a folding pruning saw and a pair of loppers (I personally find the loppers cumbersome and prefer to work solely with my shears and pruning saw).
Begin by removing the “Three Ds” - dead, diseased or damaged wood. Once you’ve done this, take a few steps back from the tree and walk around it once or twice. Does it seem lopsided or congested? Are multiple branches pointing in the same direction, attempting to access the same light? If so, remove the wood that seems misplaced or redundant, even if it’s a big cut. Make sure to remove any branches that are growing back into the center of the tree because these will only cause congestion and inhibit air flow.
Now, proceed slowly around the tree. Draw your attention to the entire tree by touching every branch, even if you don’t cut it. Does it feel like air can flow easily through the canopy? Will light be able to penetrate the entire tree once the leaves fill in?
If you are working with a young tree (1-7 years old), you will likely want to stimulate upward and outward growth. This is accomplished by cutting back last season’s growth by 40-60%. The previous season’s growth is often lighter in color and is typically very straight. If you trace it back, you will find where it intersects with the growth from the year before (which is often darker and more lignified or rigid). Make your cut somewhere between this intersection and the apical (highest) bud of the branch in question. Always cut to a bud that points away from the center of the tree - this will encourage the coming season’s growth to push in that direction, further allowing the tree to open up and branch out.
If you are working with an older tree (7+ years old) during the dormant season, consider doing removal cuts of poorly placed branches and avoiding the growth-stimulating cuts mentioned above. If you would like to prune for height control, leave branches long for now and remove them in the summer after the fruit is harvested. This is the best way to take away vigor from a large, established plant.
As you work with the tree, occasionally step back from it in order to observe it from a distance now and then. If I’m unsure of a particular cut, I’ll take 30 steps back and walk a large circle around the tree, regarding it as a whole. Occasionally I’ll tie a piece of string or ribbon around the branch at the point where I’m thinking about cutting it. Then I’ll imagine what it will look and feel like to not have that branch there. If I can’t make up my mind, I’ll leave it be and decide about it later. If you get stuck, just move on!
Pruning is really about observing, trusting and feeling. It’s about finding a rhythm as you work. For this reason pruning is, perhaps more than any other gardening practice, one that is deeply personal and difficult to teach or learn. You just have to do it yourself in order to learn how to do it. Have faith - you won’t kill the tree. Be thoughtful and decisive and study the growth of your trees in response to your actions over the coming seasons.
Make all of your cuts on an angle. Never leave a horizontal cut because it will allow water to pool up and increase the likelihood of rot.
Always cut with the blade side of your pruning shears toward the base of the tree. If you do not do this, all of your cuts will leave an extra stub of blind wood (wood without a bud to grow from), and will invite disease into the tree.
Clean your tools with a clean rag and rubbing alcohol between each tree in order to avoid spreading diseases.
For more inspiration, check out our article entitled, "Simple Rules for Pruning Fruit Trees and Deciduous Vines."
For more information on pruning principles and practices (along with some great images and diagrams) see: Christopher Brickell and David Joyce, “Pruning and Training: The Definitive Guide to Pruning Trees, Shrubs, Roses and Climbers.”
Good luck and happy winter pruning!
If you'd like to learn more about winter pruning, join us for a workshop in Napa, CA on Sunday February 18 from 10am-12noon. Register here!