Experience is an excellent teacher when it comes to growing fruit. Deformed apples, overgrown trees, tiny grapes – I’ve committed every boo-boo there is in the world of pruning trees and vines.
But I’ve learned from my mistakes.
That’s why, earlier this month, I borrowed my fly-fishing-husband’s hip waders to slough through two feet of slushy snow up the hill to prune the five antique apple trees, two pears, a cherry, and apricot in my little orchard.
Then I massacred the grapevines on my way down the hill.
The reason I put myself through this frigid torture is that late winter is the ideal time to prune, before those lovely warm spells of early spring melt the snow, and fruit buds swell in preparation to bloom.
One more week will be too late, I guarantee. I waited until March 15 three years ago. The snow melted rapidly due to a prolonged stretch of 55-degree F. (13 C) weather, and fruit buds on all the trees swelled, showing pink tips in preparation for blooming.
Here is what I’ve learned by trial and error (much error) about fruit pruning:
Apples, pears, and Asian pears
• When planting new trees, cut them off at belt height. Not only will the fruit be easier to pick, but also a shorter trunk makes the tree bear earlier. Fruit buds and spurs will form more quickly, because the young tree immediately produces side branches that contain them.
• Retain one horizontal-to-45-degree-angle branch for every foot of trunk height. These branches should be evenly distributed around the circumference of the trunk.
• Cut big first. Find the thickest wood that needs to be removed and cut there. It will save hours of time and numerous cuts of smaller branches and twigs.
• Remove all limbs that appear to grow downward. They were probably dragged into that position by the weight of fruit in the previous season.
• Prune every winter, and don’t be afraid to remove at least 90 percent of the previous season’s growth. Otherwise, the vines will have too large a crop, which reduces the quality and size of the grapes.
• Retain two or three buds on each lateral cane. That’s where the new vines with fruit buds will grow. Cut away everything else.
Cherries and apricots
• Cut back young trees to 30 inches high at planting to force lateral growth.
• Select scaffold branches the second year; otherwise prune lightly until trees start to fruit. Then, head back tall limbs to keep tree in bounds.
• Remove weak branches and occasionally head back laterals to keep tree a manageable size.
• Prune again after fruit has been picked, because cherries and apricots will grow quickly into huge trees if not pruned aggressively.
Doreen Howard, the Edible Explorer, is one of nine garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. If it’s edible and unusual, Doreen figures out a way to grow it in her USDA Zone 4b garden. She’ll try anything once, even smelly Durian. A former garden editor at Woman’s Day, she writes regularly for The American Gardener and The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s Garden Guide.
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