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John Schnackenberg: Making the Cut with Your Fruit Trees

The shear joy of pruning will make a lasting difference in your orchard

It’s time to help your friend who has been sleeping naked and cold in your yard all winter. This isn’t about your old college roommate who never let go of his college partying ways or an unfortunate homeless person. I’m talking about your real friends, the ones that bring you apples, plums, pears, apricots and peaches every year. They don’t raid the refrigerator or scare your kids, but they help create beauty and shade for you on those hot summer days. Of course, I’m talking about your bare, leafless deciduous fruit trees.

I love fruit trees and what they produce, and I love the ritual of getting them ready for spring called pruning. Pruning is an art and a science, because while trees react in fairly predictable ways when pruned, the reasons for doing so are often determined by an individual’s preferences and sensibilities. It’s about finding the right balance of light, air and space within a tree and bringing that out, much like a sculptor sees a form in a block of granite and reveals it with his chisel. Any two people pruning similar trees are going to create different forms, and they may both look very different and yet still be “correctly” pruned to a pomologist (fruit scientist).

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I encourage those of you who haven’t yet pruned your deciduous trees to go out and do it before it starts opening up its flower and leaf buds. I’ll offer a couple of suggestions to make this as painless as possible. First, we should have a reason for pruning and keep this in mind when deciding which branches to prune out. Here are some of the reasons to prune: to increase light penetration into the tree; to remove poorly situated and unproductive branches; to maintain a training system or tree structure; to keep the tree a manageable size; to increase air circulation within the tree; to remove broken, weak and diseased branches; to facilitate getting around one’s yard or orchard; to help manage crop and fruit size; to remove disease organisms; and to renew productive fruit wood.

If you have a clear reason for pruning in mind it will help a lot when you’re making your cuts. While there are whole books dedicated to pruning, and there’s more to it than I have room to write about here, I will offer a couple of pruning basics in descending order of importance.

» Cut out dead, diseased and downward growing branches. These are the most obvious branches to take out and, if you don’t make any other cuts, these are the most important to make. Cut out limbs growing downward from or originating from the bottom of a branch. Disinfect your shears or cutting tools between cuts when removing diseased wood.

» Cut out crossing and inward growing branches. This is a little trickier since, when you look at a tree, especially one that hasn’t been pruned for a several years, it may appear to be just a tangle of branches and twigs. Take heart because most trees are forgiving, even if you make a few “bad cuts” and will quickly outgrow your mistakes. While selecting from the outside of the tree canopy inward, remove the smaller, less vigorous branch of two branches occupying the same space. If you can, cut it back to a twig, bud or branch growing toward a more open space. Remove branches growing toward the center of the tree. As a novice, if you limit yourself to taking out just 10 percent to 20 percent of your trees’ wood in any given year, your trees should recover with no ill effects.

» Use sharp bypass type pruners, loppers or saws. Using sharp tools will help make a good clean cut and make the job easier by not having to exert a lot of pressure on your cutting tool. I never use anything but bypass-type pruners (scissor-like cutting action) since anvil-type cutters tend to damage or crush part of the limb being pruned during the cut.

» Don’t leave stubs when pruning. Make sure that you prune to something like a bud, twig or branch, preferably one growing upward and outward toward an open space. Don’t leave a stub as it will die back to the next growing point, leaving an area for disease to enter the tree, in addition to being unsightly.

There are many great books and online sources for detailed information on pruning that I don’t have the space to provide right now. I encourage you to check them out if you want more information on this subject. There are also many trained professionals here in Santa Barbara who can properly and artfully prune your trees, and most are more than happy to share their knowledge and offer tutorials as they’re pruning your trees.

Click here for more information from UC Davis.

— John Schnackenberg is owner of La Palta Orchard Care. Click here for more information, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call 805.729.6873.

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