Pruning Paradise

It’s a race to get the fruit trees pruned back before they start budding. Usually, I would do this earlier in the winter, but the weather, lambing, and covid-19 happened. The established orchard on the land is a hectic mess, being in serious rehab after almost a decade of neglect. The branches tangle in chaos, and I’ve spent the last seven years trying to address the overgrowth. After studying and observing these elders for a few years, I started hacking away with little awareness of how to really shape the trees. Now, after a few more years of observation and gentle regenerative care, I’m taking off the last of the larger branches these trees should not have to support.

Fruit trees are all about producing fruit right? Well, to keep a tree fruiting nicely year after year, you have to keep them pruned up, otherwise, the tree puts all its energy into branches, growing new wood instead of food.

The plum tree pictured above has been left to it’s own devices for a few years now, and the branches have gone crazy. We’ve had no fruit for three years now, and I’m ok with that, because this is a rogue plum, and I’ve got enough trees to tend as it is, so I let this one go for now. I can always cut it back into shape as it matures. That’s part of the beauty of younger trees, they bounce back. With older wood, you have to do a lot of slow removal to let the tree recover. A good rule of thumb is take no more than a third of the tree in one pruning.

Getting pictures of these trees so you can see the transitions is very challenging. In the picture above, I’ve just finished pruning. You can see a pile of woody material on the ground. It’s definitely less than a third of the tree’s mass. My finger is hovering over the height these trees used to tower at. Fruit trees tend to grow up and then shoot out a new level of branches. These trees were two stories high, and now they are one. You should be able to harvest the fruit easily from a ladder. If you can’t reach the branch to prune from the ladder, you won’t be able to pick the fruit either.

This frost peach is already blossoming out. I managed to prune it and put in another tie back to continue encouraging it towards the wall of the building (late espalier plan). Stone fruit trees can be pruned any time, but taking off branches after buds have formed is going to knock off a lot of your future fruit before it has a chance to develop. Be mindful of your timing. The apple trees were still dormant, and I caught my pears just before blossoms opened, though it was risky, and I might have deformed many of the buds any way. Fruit trees are most vulnerable as they are budding out, so always take care with late pruning.

This photo shows a better perspective of cutting off the second story level of these older apple trees. The tree on left is still sporting it’s upper canopy, where as the trees to the right have been reshaped to a single story. The tree far right is throwing up a tall leader branch, and I’m leaving that 1st year growth to give the tree a crown. All trees naturally reach for the sky, trying to be the tallest thing in the area to receive the most sun. Pruning forces the shape of fruit trees to human advantage, giving us easy reach and many more fruits. However, when you take an entire second story of branches off a tree, it’s natural response is to put up a lot of first year growth the next year, trying to reform a crown. By leaving one or two first growth leads up, I trick the tree into thinking it still has the upper crown started, and hopefully less first year suckers will shoot up.

What’s wrong with first year growth? Well, you don’t get fruit off newly formed branches (first year). Second year wood will produce flowers, but first year only produces new wood and leaf buds, no flowers. On a well maintained fruit tree, you’ll only have suckers (first year) and some minor shaping if larger branches are rubbing or damaged from extreme weather. Pictured above are two frost peaches that have not been checked for three years. They keep going up, not out, and the energy to put on any fruit is hindered by the continued first growth.

The apple tree pictured above has been maintained to produce buds. Suckers are pruned back, and the young tree is tied to maintain certain growth shape against the bush behind it. You can see many 2 inch stubs coming off the upper branches. These are flower buds, and will hopefully produce fruit again this year. Last year I enjoyed a modest crop of large apples from this heirloom verity. This year, I hope to enjoy even more. The rewards of stewarding fruit trees is worth it’s weight in gold. Only this month did we eat the last of our apples. It was the first year we saved enough to enjoy through the whole winter. Several more pounds are stores away as dried fruit too, but there’s nothing like biting into a crisp apple you grew yourself.

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