Spring is almost here and, if you live in the country, you might be thinking about pruning those fruit trees in your yard. Growing fruit trees is not a passive activity – especially on rural property where you often find lots of them. They actually require year-round attention for optimum health and better fruit production.
Obvious chores include watering and fertilizing during spring and summer. But trees also require attention during the winter, even though they are mostly dormant for that season. In fact, late winter is the ideal time for pruning and spraying – hence the term “dormant” oil for the type of spray used.
Cutting off branches from a healthy tree might seem counterintuitive. But careful pruning removes unproductive branches and shapes the tree to produce healthier fruit. After pruning, we spray a light mineral oil that is compatible with organic gardening – no fungicide or herbicide. The oil coats the branches and seals it from mites and other bugs that might show up during the spring bloom.
For ideal conditions, trees should be dry with no foreseeable precipitation for at least 24 hours. Likewise, ideal temps should be close to freezing. Although in some areas, you may be able to prune as late as April as long as the trees have not sprouted leaf buds.
This past winter was a real challenge because it was so wet. Our continuous days of snow and freezing rain made it nearly impossible to get out and take care of the trees. Finally, with dry weather and temperatures still below 40, we found a perfect day in March.
While pruning is not that hard with the right tools, it helps to know what you want to accomplish with the trimming. A fruit tree continues to grow throughout the year, producing new shoots from its limbs. Unless these shoots have fruit buds, they need to be pruned off. Otherwise, they divert nourishment from the branches that have fruit. Pruning helps direct the nutrients from the tree trunk to branches with fruit.
Likewise, the shape of the tree can determine how productive and healthy the harvest will be. There are several schools of thought about this, but we prefer to prune the center lead (trunk) out. This helps the outer branches spread out and grow into an umbrella shape. The open center allows more air circulation and sunlight into the remaining branches, which helps blooming. This approach also makes it easier to harvest – as the outer branches bear fruit, they tend to bend down, making it easier to reach. Proper pruning can help shape a tree into ideal production.
You will often see a mature fruit trees laden with fruit at the very top branches. This makes the fruit nearly inaccessible when the tree hasn’t been pruned regularly. We had a few mature trees on our property when we moved in four years ago. They were overgrown with misshapen branches that criss-crossed inside the canopy. This not only creates a tangled mess, it also invites bugs and disease. And, of course, the harvest was lacking.
So, two winters ago, we did a dramatic pruning that cut back many of the thick, older branches, and opened up the centers. It is a scary proposition and, again, counterintuitive because it looks like the tree will die from all that major surgery. Plus, trees often appear to “suffer” because they will skip a year in production as they recover. However, after a major pruning, trees usually bounce back, and are healthier for it.
And that was the case with our trees – there were no apples last summer. But spring weather has brought tons of flowering fruit buds, and the trees are thriving. Plus, this summer, as the lower branches fill out, the fruit will be a lot easier to reach. Next winter, we will able to return to light pruning.
So don’t be afraid to trim your trees after you’ve determined how you want them to look. Regular pruning and dormant spray will keep them healthy and producing for years.
If you’d like to hear more about life in the country, with Nature as Neighbors, write or give us a call.