Pleachers and Pruning

Younger plantings along our hedge edges are ready for laying over to encourage horizontal growth and a hard, natural barrier. The young hedge pictured above has been growing slowly, and finally has a few lead branches ready to pleach over in a partial cut near the base to bring the growth down low to the ground. Suckers will shoot out from the base next year, while the long leader, now laying sideways, also redirects it’s growth to the branches now pointing up as new leaders along the trunk. It is easy to manipulate shrubs and small trees when they are young, shaping the growth to suit your natural fencing needs. There is a pallet fence backing the young hedge as it develops, but that dead wood will collapse and compost soon, while the living fence will strengthen and grow for many lifetimes. The controlled horizontal growth will also create a living wall of food for our sheep, who love browsing broad leaf plants as much as grazing grasses.

In less developed pasture edges, like the one pictured below, I’ve pleachered some more mature bitter cherry trees to mark out a new line for hedge development. Cherries sucker out very well, and by laying these trunks, we’re shaping a fresh hedge line, which we’ll plant into with a variety of other species to diversify the vegetation within our living fence. This hedge will also keep sheep from grazing down a steep hillside beyond, and protect an already replanted stand of mixed broad leaf species like cascara and Sitka alder. Sheep can be quite lazy, and it takes very little barrier of branches to deter them from pressing into the vulnerable forest undergrowth. Ideally, I would have dropped these cherries a few years ago, but life can get very busy here at EEC, and the hedge is still set for replanting down the road.

Hedges can be tight and neat lines on pasture edges, but at EEC Forest Stewardship, we prefer organic, wavy shapes offer up more surface area and space for diverse species. Over time, the hedge will expand and begin creeping into the clearings where in time, more forest will be replanted after grazing animal systems are phased out. A healthy landscape like this should maintain some open spaces for transition from canopy to field, but in time, the trees will grow and shade out open land. By then, many of the hedges will be lost in the folds of evergreen canopy. For now, they build hard edges of habitat.

Some of our ancient apple trees got a trim this year too. Pruning is very important in maximizing fruit production. Since EEC is not about maximizing, but rather, diversifying, we are rather lazy about pruning, and phased out the practice completely in new orchard plantings to allow the tree it’s own selection of growth and shape over rushing fruit harvest. There are some very exciting alternative cultivation success stories with not pruning fruit trees at all. Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution gives a wonderful take on non-pruning in his masterpiece on natural farming. The trees at EEC, pictured below, have been pruned all their life and then neglected for a decade. I’ve been slowly cutting them back into shape, sometimes preforming minor tree surgery- taking off a large branch, to help re-balance the tree’s structure to let in more light and air. But these older trees are in decline, and I’ve begun harvesting cuttings to graft onto new root-stalk to continue already successful varieties on our landscape.

Pruning lets in more light, encouraging buds to form, which produces more fruit. Pruning a young tree will hasten fruit production, but commands continual pruning every year to maintain the ideal shapes for commercial production. Take industry out of the fruit tree’s development allows the tree to naturally select it’s own shape and production without human ego assuming we can do it better. There are many cultivars that cannot survive without pruning, so be aware that if you choose the lazy rout and let the fruit tree fend for its self, you will loose more trees, but the ones that make it will be a good foundation for future grafting to replace the lost varieties. You’ll have to wait a few more years for un-pruned fruit trees to develop a good fruiting crown, but letting nature work in her own time usually reaps great reward in the long run.

Remember that most fruit trees have been grafted, and come from lineages of heavy cultivation. Apples are not a far cry from Malus sieversii, their Kazakhstan ancestor back in eastern Europe. Varieties today are countless, and have all manner of make and use- from baking to cider. Though the best fruiting varieties are grafted, you can still plant apple seeds and get fruiting trees, but they will most likely not produce very appetizing eating apples- if they produce anything at all. Still, out of every great apple strain there was a tree from seed originally. We’ve lost so many heritage apple strains, but some are being rediscovered here in The Pacific Northwest. In my own research in seed planting, I came across this video by Stefan Sobkowiak, which give a great explanation for planting seeds and what happens. Most domestic fruit seeds behave similarly, you must graft to get a specific type of fruit consistently.

Pruning is a tool for shaping growth of any vegetation, and will impact growth rate too. Pleachering brings out suckers while pruning usually removes them. There are many kinds of shaping techniques beyond these two examples. The action of shaping growth is high maintenance in the short term, but you can also choose to not prune, or pleacher once and let the horizontal growth go. At EEC, we’re always embracing less work, so I do not plan to lay hedges more than once, as the long term vision here it to let the forest return. Fruit trees will get shaded out, and hedges will melt into the forest understory. Being able to picture the development of your tended space through many seasons of growth will help in determining when you should- or if you should make cuts. Most pruning and pleachering happens while the tree is dormant, so plan on an active winter schedule in your orchard or along your hedgerow to have lasting effect and healthy vegetation.

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