OUTDOORS: It’s time to get out and enjoy pruning your fruit trees

Picture that bumper crop of fruit that could be yours with a backyard fruit tree and a little proper pruning. As seen here, Colten Wilson enjoys picking fruit from a well-managed apple tree. 

I think most of us were rejoicing over the recent snowfall and I have a feeling as soon as the weather warms up, we’re all going to want to get outside and enjoy the nice days. Pruning your fruit trees is a great way to enjoy the day.

Pruning any time from now until the time the tree breaks dormancy, usually around the middle of March, is ideal. Just don’t prune right before moisture is expected. The exact time that the tree breaks dormancy will depend on the location of the trees and the species of tree.

I’m a proponent of spraying fruit trees with dormant oil in the spring, and I prefer to prune before I spray the tree. (I’ll tell you more about dormant oil in my next article). I also like to prune before the tree gets leaves because it’s healthier for the tree and it’s a lot easier to see the branches and know where to cut.

If you’re new to the whole idea of pruning fruit trees, you may be asking yourself why they need pruning anyway? The answer is simple. Pruning will help the tree produce more and larger fruit while keeping it healthier, and it’s really not too difficult.

So here are a few tips to get you going.

First, always use sharp shears or a sharp pruning saw for good cuts. Bypass shears are preferred over the anvil type shears that pinch the wood when they cut. I spray my tools with a disinfectant such as Lysol before I begin to make sure I’m not spreading any disease. It’s wise to use pruning shears on young trees and limbs less than 1/2 inch in diameter, and lopping shears for your bigger cuts. For mature fruit trees you will need a pruning saw or better yet, hire a professional. Larger trees can be a lot of work!

Begin pruning your tree by removing any dead or broken branches, and branches that are crossed and rubbing against each other because this can lead to disease. Fruit trees are not pruned in the same way deciduous trees are. They need to be pruned to allow sunlight to reach the interior of the tree.

When I prune I like to keep the tree as short as possible. I don’t like to be any more than about 4 or 5 feet up on a ladder to prune or to harvest. If you have a dwarf tree there’s really no need to be 8 to 10 feet up on a ladder. And there’s definitely no need to go out on a limb when you prune! Standing on a branch is not a good idea!

It may be tempting to get an unruly or slightly neglected tree looking great as quickly as possible, but don’t remove more than one-third of the branches in one season, especially when pruning an older tree.

Removing too much will cause the tree to produce “water sprouts.” These are the twigs that grow straight up several feet in one year and in my opinion, water sprouts are a pain to deal with. They not only don’t produce fruit, but they take a lot of time to cut off. I know some water sprouts may be inevitable, but I’d rather not encourage them. Also, heavy pruning will result in less fruit so don’t overdo it, especially when pruning apple trees.

It’s difficult to explain the basic cuts of pruning fruit trees but it will help to keep in mind that the bigger, “fuzzy,” plump, or more round-shaped buds, will become the fruit. If you have an older more mature apple tree, thin the little “spurs” (the crooked stubby branches that have fruit buds) so they’re spaced about 5 or 6 inches apart on the branch. This will help produce larger fruit.Make your cut about ¼ inch from the bud at a 30-degree angle.

Apples, plums, cherries and pears are produced on spurs that are two years old or older. Peaches, on the other hand, develop fruit on last year’s growth, so annual pruning to encourage new growth is very important for peaches. The amount of wood removed from apples, pears, cherries and plums should be significantly less than that removed from peaches and nectarines. Just a side note, if you had an abundant crop of apples last year and didn’t thin the fruit, you may not have quite as many apples this year.

When pruning apple, peach and nectarine trees think about what branches will be shading the fruit. Take off the branches (not flower buds) that go straight up or those growing downward on the underside of the branch. When pruning a branch, cut it just above the branch connection. Stay outside of the “wrinkly” area, yet try not to leave a big stub.

In general, try to keep the more horizontal branches, and remove more vertical branches. The large main “scaffold” branches should not be located directly above another large scaffold branch. If possible, the scaffold branches should be pruned to look similar to a spiral staircase.

Don’t worry about sealing your pruning cuts. I know it’s tempting to grab that thick, black, tar type pruning paint, but this has been proven to do more harm than good. A good pruning cut will heal itself.

These are just a few quick pruning tips. If you would like to know more about pruning fruit trees, the Montrose Regional Library, along with CSU Extension, will be holding a series of virtual gardening talks on Tuesday, March 9 at 6:30 p.m. The Tri River Extension horticultural agent Susan Carter will present information on pruning fruit trees and small trees. The talk will include the best time to plant fruit trees and small trees, general care and maintenance, and how to get the most from your fruit trees. There will also be a virtual deciduous tree pruning class in June. For further information on a list of classes (including Xeriscaping) or to sign up for a class, contact the Montrose Public Library.

Linda Corwine McIntosh is an ISA certified arborist, Colorado advanced master gardener and licensed pesticide applicator.

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