'Talk' to your trees with pruning shears

Paul Rogers knows just where to place the blame. "If your tree doesn't grow the way you want it to, it's your fault," he says. "You've given it the wrong instructions."

That's why the consultant to the Preservation Orchard at Old Sturbridge Village constantly "talks" to his trees -- with a pair of sharp pruning shears. "Every time you cut a tree, you're talking to it," says Mr. Rogers. "You're telling it what you want it to do."

In other words, pruning your favorite peach, apple, or pear tree is simply a way of telling it how you want it to grow. Ultimately, how it grows governs its productivity.

Giving your tree the right instructions is pretty simple, really. In brief, if you want new growth to grow up, you cut back a side branch to an upward-facing bud; if you want new growth to grow out, cut the branch back to a downward-facing bud.

I had gone to the Preservation Orchard to wacth Mr. Rogers, a nurseryman from neighboring Charlton and radio broadcaster on horticultural topics, "talk" to the trees. It proved a fascinating few hours.

Prunning practices have veered back and forth during the several thousand years of "modern" agriculture. Current thinking, based partly on the advent of the new dwart-tree varieties, suggests a central leader (trunk) with swirls of sideward growing branches coming out of the trunk every 18 inches or so.

Remember, vertical or upward-growing branches produce little fruit, while sideward or horizontal branches fruit heavily.So, the closer to 90 degrees these branches grow out from the stem, the better. This is where it becomes important to correctly "tell" the tree what you want it to do.

Sometimes it helps to hang a weight on the end of the branch to prevent it from curving upward, or you might tie it into a horizontal position. when pruning always cut back to a downward-facing bud.

While horizontal branches are one pruning goal, getting light and air into the tree is another. This is why spacing the swirls at least two feet apart is so important. It also helps to have the various branches growing to all points of the compass.

"If you were to look down at the tree from above," says Mr. rogers, "no one branch would be directly above the other in the ideal tree." In other words, if a lower branch on the trees is growing out toward the east, the next branch above it should point southeast or northeast, etc. This isn't always easy to attain but it is worth striving for. Tying a branch in place for a season can be most effective.

Mr. rogers like to prune all vertical growth from horizontal branches. Obviously, too, you should remove all crossing branches and any branch that starts growing back into the tree.

Another Rogers tip: If your tree has reached a desired height, and you want to encourage more vigorous side growth, partially cut the bark off the central leader just above the side branch. This will divert most of the sap away from the trunk and into the branch.

Mr. rogers does the bulk of his pruning in the spring. Then again in the summer he does what he calls a "fine tuning."

His advice: Keep your pruning shears in your back pocket whenever you go out into the garden because you never know when it might be advisable to "talk to your trees."

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