Dormant Pruning Fruit Trees

When nighttime temps are still just below freezing, but daytime temps are rising into the 40s and even 50s, it’s time to get into the orchard and do dormant pruning. Personally, I prefer to dormant prune in the late fall, well after leaf-drop but before the ground is totally frozen, however sometimes life gets in the way of making that happen on time. Early spring dormant pruning is still a good option though. I like to wander down to the orchard on a day that’s “Triple-C”: Crisp, Clear and Cold. It’s here I find my first few hours of peace after a long winter trapped inside.

I’m not going to go into much detail on pruning because entire books and doctoral theses have been written on the subject. I encourage people to seek out those resources if they truly want to understand how to prune because many have said it better than I could. Just understand that how, what, when, & where you prune will stimulate the tree to respond in very specific ways. The same cut while the tree is dormant vs during the active growing season will have dramatically different results. A heading cut made on a water sprout vs old growth will produce different responses from the tree. For a good grounding in pruning, I again refer readers to Michael Phillips and his seminal book The Holistic Orchard (also The Holistic Orchard DVD). Mr. Phillips’ book has one of the best explanations on basic pruning technique I’ve seen and then you can actually watch him do it on the DVD. Great stuff.

Before I decide to prune, I’ll take a look at the long range weather report to ensure we won’t have anything wacky, like a sub-zero freeze or sleet/freezing rain, over the next week. I like to prune while it’s still cold enough to keep the trees dormant, but not so freezing that I might induce a winter injury.

IMG_3334Next I’ll dig out my pruning tools from the shed, check the blades and give them a good sharpening before I start. I’ll keep the sharpening stone in my pocket and touch up the blades every other tree or so. I don’t own a pruning saw, but my little bow saw has served me well enough over the years. That doesn’t mean I don’t want a pruning saw…I might even take down a ladder if I need to make some topping cuts on the larger trees. So far this year I don’t think I need the ladder. Tools in hand, I make my way to the first tree…

I like to look closely at last year’s growth with an eye towards shaping the tree to better facilitate this year’s growth. And that’s really what pruning is all about: vision. Looking forward into the life of the tree and imagining it at the end of this season, 5 years, 20 years down the road and giving the structure a snip here, a heading cut there so as to guide the tree down the path to maximum productivity over it’s lifespan (which hopefully far exceeds my grandkid’s).

I’ll inspect the tree wraps and look for any sign of winter injury: disease, splits, rots, deer rubs/chews, etc. Not much to do about them at this point in the season, but I’ll take note of them so I can be proactive as soon as possible.

Then I commence to channel Edward Scissorhands…snip, snip, snippity, snip. Good, healthy growth that gets cut is dropped at the base of the tree. Diseased growth is carefully removed and tossed in the trash bin – burn piles are not very feasible this time of year. I try to circle the tree and view it from all angles to get a good idea of its shape.

Here are few examples of today’s pruning job.

Pruning a Peach Tree
Pruning a Peach Tree

First up is a Peach tree that got a bit unruly last season. Peaches are always aggressive growers and the water sprouts need to be pruned back hard every year. Peaches, and most stone fruits like Nectarines, Apricots, Plums, etc, are usually pruned to an open “vase” shape. Notice the multi-wishbone shapes that branch out from the trunk. It may seem like some of the branches are close together, or overlapping, but in about a month, when the sap starts to flow and the trees reach “silver tip” budding, limb spreaders will be put in place to separate the branches. Right now the trees are dormant and their limbs are not that flexible.

Pruning an Apple Tree
Pruning an Apple Tree

Next up is an Apple tree, which had also gone a little wild last season. Apples are usually pruned to a strong central leader, with sets of scaffold branches at regular intervals. This is a young tree, about 5-6 years old, and is still “shaping”. It has three scaffolds right now – a large one at the bottom, a medium one in the middle and one that I’m just starting to shape at the top. Again, this one needs some limb spreaders to get the branches growing at good angles.

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