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Friday, June 19, 2015

The Other Pruning Season - Advice For The Home Orchardist

The summer solstice is coming, and while I won't be sacrificing virgins or throwing clams to the sun in honor of the day, I will be getting ready for it.  That's because the best time to control the size of the homestead fruit tree is right about the time of the summer solstice.

I learned this at the Mother Earth News Fair when I attended a lecture by Ann Ralph, who wrote the book Grow a Little Fruit Tree.  It was a great talk, because she distilled pruning down to three basic cuts, and two times a year, and giving the all important explanation why.

It all boils down to stored energy.  Trees store their energy in the form of sap.  In the winter, sap is stored in the trunk and roots, and in the summer it's freely flowing up until the time of the summer solstice.  At that time, the sap stops moving to the ends of the tree and growth for the year slows way down, and the sap starts to flow back into the trunk and roots.  By the time it's autumn, the sap is pretty much out of the branches and the tree goes dormant. This is why you're better off transplanting a bare root tree in the autumn and winter, rather than planting a potted tree in the spring.

So the first thing to know about pruning is that cuts made in the fall, winter, and spring will result in bushy growth, because after the cut, the tree still has a lot of energy to move, and it will expend that energy growing branches. A lot of new ones.  This is good if you're trying to get your tree to fill out, either during its first year or at a specific area in the tree.  Cuts made at or just after the summer solstice will result in less aggressive growth, so that is when you want to prune to contain the growth of the tree.

The second thing to know is that you are in control of the size of the tree at all times.  Don't worry; I didn't know that either.  But what about dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstocks, you say.  If you read the fine print in the nursery catalogs you'll notice that a dwarf rootstock still results in a ten to fifteen foot tree, which is way taller than you or me.  Ms. Ralph said that it really doesn't matter what the rootstock size is because you can control how big you let the tree get; what you want to pay attention to in a rootstock is how well it does in your soil and climate.  Some rootstocks are better in well drained soil and some can handle heavy clay.  You should go with a rootstock that will handle what you're going to give it, regardless of what kind it is.  So even though you wanted that Elstar apple and it's only available on a standard rootstock but you wanted a much smaller tree, you can go ahead and get it.

Assuming you bought the standard sized tree during bare root season which is the best time to get a fruit tree, once you get it into its hole and all tucked in, it's time to make the hardest cut you'll ever make to that tree.  Cut the tree off at a forty-five degree angle with a very sharp pruner or lopper so that it's now at the same height as your knee, even if it has branches on it higher up. Yes, your knee. Remember, we're growing a small tree here.  It's okay, you can do it.  When I espaliered my apple trees, I cut them all at eighteen inches and they were fine.  Come spring when the sap starts to flow, you will find lots of new branches growing on your tree.

So now it's spring and you have lots of branches.  Keep an eye on where they're growing and the direction they are heading; if you have a lot of branches growing toward the center of the tree criss-crossing each other, you'll want to take most of those out at the solstice.  All trees ripen fruit by the exposure to sun which helps develop the sugars in the fruit, so you want to keep the canopy open so that sun can reach into all parts of the canopy.

Once it's the summer solstice, you can now go in and make your cuts to control the ultimate size of the tree.  Use heading cuts to change the direction in which the branch is going, and thinning cuts to remove branches from the tree (see the illustration at right for examples). Heading and thinning cuts can also be employed in the winter for the same reasons, but bear in mind that they will probably result in more growth because the energy of the tree is in storage.

My stump cut
Last autumn I decided that I didn't like the shape or size of one of my Lapins cherries, so I steeled myself and cut it off about hip high. I wish I'd known I could cut it lower, but I think it will be okay anyway, now that I know I can still keep it in control, and more importantly, how to keep it in control. But cutting it back hard did wonders for it, and I would do it again now that I know how well it's turned out. Instead of only two branches in the same lateral plane with the trunk, the
New size and shape. Long branches
will be taken out at solstice
branches are evenly spread around the trunk at a height that will be easier for me to manage.

The other Lapins. The long branches
will be removed altogether with
thinning cuts at solstice
The other thing that Ms. Ralph mentioned is that when you're considering which branches to cut, you should take out any vertical branches, which I've heard referred to as water spouts.  These vertical branches are rarely if ever fruitful. She also mentioned that you should still prune, even if there is fruit on that branch that needs to come off.  You should also thin your fruit, particularly apples. The first reason for thinning is so that the tree can support the weight of all the fruit.  The second reason is so that you can grow larger apples.  She believes thinning fruit to be so important that the first year one of her trees fruited, it bore two apples.  She thinned it to one.

Pluot with an open fountain
shape.  All I have to do is
control its size
I have a lot of work to do.  On my little quarter acre I have eleven apple trees, three cherries, two Italian plums, and two pluots, all of which need attention, especially the apples. The plums also need special attention; I cut them back this winter and they responded by getting really bushy.  I have exactly nine plums on them this year, the most there has ever been, but I will sacrifice fruit if it means I can get the shape and size under control.
Pluot with a bad shape. It
will have to wait until next
winter to be corrected

Getting ready for all this work means getting my Felco pruners tuned up, which I did yesterday.  You can see how to do that here.  My Felco pruners have stood by me for almost fourteen years; they were the first ever birthday present that Steve got me, even before we were married, and they have been great.  If I needed to, I would definitely buy another pair.  They have kept in reasonable shape all these years and now that I've cleaned and sharpened them again they are practically like brand new, and I use them a lot.  The classic Felco pruner is the F2, and they make an identical pruner for smaller hands which is the one I have; that one is the F6.  The videos for disassembling, cleaning and sharpening, and reassembling are shown with the F2 but they work for the F6 as well.  You can expect to pay around fifty bucks for the Felco pruner. If you need to buy pruners but don't want to shell out for the Felcos, at least look for a pruner that you can take apart to clean and sharpen.  Fiskars appears to make one here for around seventeen dollars.

Today is the nineteenth of June, which means you have two days to get your pruning gear tuned up.  If you have time, it might help to go out and take a look at your trees to make mental notes about where you'll make your cuts and what you have to do. To recap, you'll be looking to thin and control the size of the tree with heading and thinning cuts on or right after the summer solstice, which is the twenty-first of June. Next winter you'll be evaluating your trees to see where you should be encouraging growth, and pruning to help shape the tree.

I am giving myself several days to get this all accomplished, because with eighteen trees to prune, I'll be pretty busy.  The good news is, this time I'll really know what I'm doing.


Barbara said...

Thank you so much for this information. Now that I know this, there won't be a safe fruit tree at the nursery!

Paula said...

Glad it was helpful!

jules said...

Thanks so much for this information. We don't have fruit trees yet, but we're talking about satsumas and limes for the future. I'm bookmarking this. You think it will work in Lower Alabama or is it strictly for Northern climates?

Paula said...

Hi Jules! I think it would work anywhere in the world, as long as you paid attention to the time of year for the cuts you're intending.

I'm certain that it would work for your satsuma plums, but not as certain about the citrus (it being evergreen), although it makes sense that it would because sap rises in citrus as well.

Amanda said...


I have a peach tree that desperately needs to be pruned and I need help figuring how where.

I also have hops that look to double last year's production.