The thought of pruning my fruit trees often fills me with dread. But I know how to prune, and I understand that it is an important task as it’s all about the greater good of the harvest.
A good prune will increase air flow through the tree, allow the sun to get into the tree to ripen the fruit and helps to create a structure that will support the weight of branches laden with fruit. And more importantly, pruning helps to ensure the tree is healthy. I may start with hesitation, but as I work my way around the orchard I am confidently lopping off branches left, right and centre. But there is a method to pruning to ensure success.
For the health of the tree
Firstly, remove all dead, dying and diseased branches. It is a good idea to wash your tools after this stage and between trees with bleach, alcohol wipes or bottled methylated spirits (10%) then rinse, so you don’t spread the disease through the orchard. Next look for any branches that are crossing, rubbing, or growing in a direction when loaded with fruit will get in the way of another branch.
To ensure the plant can hold the fruit
Then look for branches with tight V (crotch) coming from the main trunk. The tighter the angle, the more likely this branch will snap when full of heavy ripe fruit. It is best to nip these out while they are young. It is quite upsetting to find a large branch of almost ripe fruit hanging precariously from your favourite tree. Branches that grow downward as these can also be dragged down when full of fruit and risk breaking and damaging the tree, so cut these off.
To help the fruit to ripen
To ensure the tree has good air flow and the sun can reach the ripening fruit you need to thin out some of the branches in the centre of the tree. The aim is to create a goblet-like affect. Or you can go for a pyramid shape – as long as when the tree is full of leaves, it isn’t overcrowded.
To shape the tree
Ideally you want to make sure the tree is at a height where the fruit is within easy reach. You can redirect the growth of a branch by making an angle cut sloping away but from just above a bud facing in the direction you want the branch to grow. Ideally with a fruit tree this is facing outward, or to the left or right if you want to fill a gap.
However it doesn’t end there. While these basics will give you a good healthy tree, each type of tree has personal preferences, so to ensure a bumper harvest you need to understand what the tree you are about to prune needs and treat it accordingly or you may find you don’t have any fruit to harvest at all.
Apples and Pears
These generally grow their fruit on ‘old wood’ and you can find fruiting spurs and fat buds on the older parts of the branches. This is normally about two-year-old wood or older. If you look carefully you can make out differences in the branch to show the yearly growth. So generally, you can cut back an apple tree quite hard without compromising the fruit. Although there are always exceptions so check what the variety you have actually likes. The best time to prune these is in the winter before the buds begin to break.
Peaches and Nectarines
These generally bear fruit on branches from last season, but they only fruit for one season so you need to prune each winter to encourage new growth. But don’t cut back too hard or you will cut off the fruiting buds for next season.
There are two types of plum, Japanese and European, and it is important to know which you have. Once you have established the tree the way you like it, it shouldn’t need much pruning, but should you want to prune - the Japanese plums normally crop on one-year old wood and on spurs and the European ones fruit on two-year old wood. It is best to prune these after fruiting in the summer or autumn to avoid Silver Leaf disease.
These flower and fruit on last season’s wood and on older fruiting spurs. The best way to prune apricots to ensure good fruiting is, after the harvest, reduce the tree by about a third.
But remember, before beginning to chop away at your tree, find out which variety you have and how it likes to be treated so you can have the best outcome – an abundance of fruit!
Finally, hygiene in the orchard is very important, so make sure your tools are clean and sharp. Remove any old fruit still hanging on the tree or languishing beneath it. Take away all of your trimmings and pruned branches from the orchard area to reduce the spread of pests and disease.
It can feel odd to be lopping away at branches your tree has worked hard all year to grow, and the idea of taking away from the tree in order to get more fruit seems counter intuitive but in order to get a good harvest there is often a price to be paid. And there is nothing better than a fresh fruit, plucked straight from the tree, still warm from the sun, eaten right there in the orchard.
Sarah the Gardener