Pruning Trees in the Home Garden

Late winter and early spring are the best times of year to prune fruit trees. Pruning before spring bud break allows the tree to send energy and growth to the branches that you choose with selective pruning. If you wait until the tree is actively growing you waste some of the tree’s energy resources and increase the chance of harmful pests and disease invading through the wounds that pruning creates.

Fruit trees in the home garden grow best when they are pruned and trained while young. Proper pruning results in a stronger, healthier tree with the potential for more and bigger fruit. When done correctly, older trees will need almost no pruning as they produce an abundance of fruit in later years.

A dwarf apple tree in the garden

Many trees that gardeners purchase arrive as bare-root “whips” with few or no side branches. These small, spindly specimens resemble a stick with just a few roots at a twisted base to identify it as a tree. After planting according to appropriate instructions, prune the top of the whip about three feet (one meter) above the soil line. Make your pruning cut about 1/4 inch (.6 centimeters) above an obvious bud. This helps to promote growth of new branches in the first year.

If you plant a container-grown tree, try to keep as many branches as possible in the first year. Only cut off twigs and branches that are obviously dead or broken. Even weak and small branches will produce leaves that will help increase root development.

In the second year, after becoming established, you can begin to remove branches to help the tree achieve maximum growth. The idea is to train your tree by keeping branches that are strong, healthy, and well-spaced for even growth. Remove branches that are interfering with others, that are broken, and that are poorly or unevenly spaced.

Both of these branches need pruning

Look for multiple branches that are all emerging from the same spot on the trunk. If left to grow they will create a weak point. By removing all but one or maybe two of these branches you are increasing the tree’s structure and strength.

The multiple branches at lower left will create future problems

Look for branches that emerge from the trunk at a sharp angle; the ones that are growing nearly vertically, close to the trunk. These branches will grow into weak limbs that can break easily in later years. You want to remove them and keep the other branches that angle out evenly.

In the second year I’ll keep extra branches on some whips, even if they aren’t perfectly spaced. If you remove too many branches too soon, you affect root development and that results in a weaker tree.

In the third year continue removing the interfering and multiple branches. Remove weak and broken ones. You’ll probably begin seeing “suckers”, the branches that emerge close to the base of the tree at ground level. Prune all the suckers. They have no benefit and will rob the tree of nutrients.

These suckers have to go

The third year is also when you can usually begin to develop the shape of your future fruit tree. It’s important to remember that branches never grow up with the tree. A branch that is two feet above the soil will always be two feet above the soil. If you want a tree with a nice spot for climbing or sitting, anticipate the appropriate height and prune accordingly.

My fruit trees are at this point and I’ve pruned off many of the lower branches. They are beginning to look like trees and I’m beginning to visualize where I want the base branches to be in the future. With my harsh winters I don’t want to get too aggressive too early in the life of the tree. I’ll keep options available by keeping branches unpruned three and four feet high. I know the branches below that aren’t needed so they can go.

My apple tree cleaned up and ready for spring

For all pruning cuts I look for the bark ridge and branch collar. When you look closely where the branch grows out from the trunk you’ll see wrinkled bark at the top of the crotch; that’s the bark ridge. The base of the branch is broader and more bulbous, almost like shoulders; that’s the collar. Cuts should be just outside the collar, not cutting into either the bark ridge or collar. The cut will be at an angle to the vertical trunk. That allows the tree trunk to grow around the cut, sealing it and protecting the tree from future damage or disease.

Never make a flush cut, right against the trunk. It may look look like it’s right and is recommended by some arborists and “experts”, but it can severely impact the tree. The cells that grow into a protective barrier are located in the branch collar. If you cut into the collar or through it, the tree can’t grow properly to seal the cut. You’ve created a wound that is open to disease organisms and to insect pests.

You don’t need wound dressing either. When pruned correctly, the cut will begin healing soon. Applying paint or dressing offers no benefit and can aid disease organisms by giving them protective cover. Just leave the the cut alone to heal naturally.

Remember one of the primary reasons for pruning in late winter or early spring is to reduce the chance that harmful organisms are present. As soon as the tree springs to life with warming weather, pruning cuts will begin to heal along with the new green growth.

By focusing on correct pruning when fruit trees are young you save yourself effort and worry compared to when the trees are older. It’s much easier to remove a branch that is only half an inch (1.3 centimeters) thick than it is to deal with it when it is four inches (10 cm) wide. If you allow weak branches to grow, they can break under the weight of heavy fruit or snow, possibly endangering the life if the entire tree.

Once you begin to regularly prune, it becomes a quick activity. Major sculpting and forming of the tree’s shape is done early when branches are small and easy to cut. Each subsequent year you only need to remove branches that are broken, dying, or have a problem. For half a dozen fruit trees the yearly pruning can be completed in about an hour.

I look forward to my annual pruning. Throughout the year I observe how the trees are growing and try to visualize their future shape. When they are dormant, with leaves gone, I can accurately see which branches will best suit the desired growth and prune accordingly. With each new season’s growth I analyze and critique my decision and modify the next year’s pruning as needed.

A healthy and well-shaped fruit tree will enhance any home garden. It just takes a little effort and foresight to give you a strong chance of success.

For more information about pruning trees, particularly older trees, see my article “Trees Like Prunes.”

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