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Pruning Fruit Trees: Now is a Good Time

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This apple tree is not cluttered with extra branches.

by Henry Homeyer 

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – March, April and May are good months to prune your fruit trees. Traditionally farmers pruned their fruit trees in March. I think they did so because they had less other work they could do at this time of year: it was too early to plant, weed or harvest. You can prune fruit trees any time of year without harming the trees, but since the snow is gone now, pruning on a sunny afternoon will give you a good excuse to be outside. Let’s take a look at how to do it.

First, you need good sharp tools: hand pruners, a pair of loppers, and a pruning saw. A pole pruner is also helpful, and you may want to use a 4- or 5-foot stepladder. Don’t buy cheap tools: they will not do a good job for long. Buy the best you can afford, and take good care of them. Pruners and loppers can be sharpened with a simple and inexpensive diamond-studded sharpener, but most pruning saws are not suitable for sharpening.

Pruning fruit trees is not complicated. Your goal is to thin out branches that clutter up the tree and shade out other branches. Every leaf should get direct sun at some point during the day. My pruning mentor told me that a robin should be able to fly through a mature apple tree without getting hurt.

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I’d remove the two smaller branches here.

The biggest culprits, and the most commonly ignored, are the water sprouts that pop up vertically from bigger branches. They are, by far, the most numerous new branches each year; they shoot straight up and new ones are just the thickness of a pencil. But ignored for a few years, they gain mass and produce lots of leaves. Get rid of them.

Water sprouts are partly a tree’s response to a need for more food for the roots. Trees that haven’t been pruned in years have many of these. After a heavy pruning, a tree may produce lots of water sprouts to replace food-producing branches that have been removed.

It is important to know where to make your cuts. Each branch has a “collar” at its base, a swollen area where it attaches to the trunk or a bigger branch. This is where the tree heals best and it should not be removed. Cut just past the collar. But if you cut too far out the branch being removed, you will be leaving a stub that can take years to rot away. Once the stub has rotted and fallen off, it can properly heal, but in the meantime it is a place where infections can occur.

I like to begin work on a tree by walking around it a few times and really looking at it: are there dead branches? Are there big vertical branches that once were water sprouts? Do some branches head into the center of the tree? All of those culprits need to be removed.

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Tools for pruning.

I generally take out the dead branches first. I look for dry, flaking bark. Try bending the branch. A dead branch will crack and break instead of bending. For small branches you can scrape the bark with your thumbnail. If it shows green, it is alive; if not, it’s dead.

Then I look at the overall branching of the tree. It is quicker and easier to remove larger branches first, rather than making 50 small cuts on that same branch.

 You should not remove more than 25% of the leaves on a tree in any given year. Leaves are the engine of the tree: they make the sugars that feed the roots and the beneficial microorganisms in the soil. They provide the energy that allows the tree to make flowers, fruit and seeds. I once pruned a mature apple with just three cuts. I removed three large problem branches, and each would have had hundreds of leaves, come spring. I had reached my 25% limit. The next year I was able to remove lots of smaller branches.

Pruning every year, or at least checking each tree each year, is a good plan. It is much easier to remove a small branch than one that is 5 inches thick. If you do need to remove a big branch, take steps to prevent it from falling prematurely and tearing the bark of the trunk. Do this by first making an under-cut a couple of feet from the trunk, but just go part way through the branch. Then, just past that cut, cut from the top all the way through. Most of the weight of the branch will fall to the ground, allowing you to make a cut through the branch just past the branch collar without risk of tearing the bark.

Other branches that need to be removed? Any branch that heads back through the middle of the tree. If two branches form a tight “V,” remove one of them. Otherwise they will grow together and include bark that will rot, and can rot the wood. If two branches parallel each other, one shades the other, so remove the least desirable branch.

Learn to identify fruit spurs on fruit trees. These are 2- to 6-inch spurs (branches) with buds on their tips. Each bud should produce several flowers and eventually fruit. Vertical branches have few fruit spurs, branches at a 45-degree angle to the trunk should produce many, at least when the tree is old enough to bear fruit. Newly planted trees might wait five years before producing fruit, so be patient!

Pruning is good for trees. Don’t think of it like surgery that removes an arm or a leg. Think of pruning as creating art: a beautifully pruned tree is a work of art, pleasing to the eye all year, especially in winter. Some fruit trees, like pears, will require lots of work every year if you want them to produce fruit low enough to reach from the ground. But all fruit trees will benefit from at least a little trim every year. Learn to enjoy this work, and the benefits it offers.

Homeyer is the author of four gardening books. His website is Reach him at [email protected]. 

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