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Tree Pruning for Health and Production

Top three reasons for Pruning fruit trees.

1. Reduced risk of Disease

2. Increased Fruit production

3. Controlling the size of your tree


 

The ideal time to prune is when the worst of winter is over, but before the trees start to leaf out. Here in zone 9a Florida we prune our fruit trees in early to mid-February. You will need to adjust your “ideal pruning” time based on your regions weather patterns.


Generally, I like to prune in two stages. First, I go through and do the bulk of my pruning in one day focusing on reducing the risk of disease. Next, I come back with fresh eyes a few days later and catch anything I missed and do my final shaping, looking more at fruit production, tree shape, and tree size.


Like a potter with clay a gardener shapes the way that the trees will grow through the pruning process. When pruning you need to imagine the branches as they stretch out and grow through the season and how they interact with there environment. We do not want the tree investing energy into growth that will later need to be pruned off. Instead we want our trees to push forth good growth that will be able to bare heavily with fruit.


 

1. Reduced risk of disease.

Just like any animal, plants can get both bacterial and viral infections. These infections are often transmitted through one or more of the following methods: open wounds; lack of fresh air; excessive moisture; other organisms acting as carriers; and infections spread by proximity typically carried by insects or wind. Proper pruning can aid in reducing these modes of disease transmissions significantly.


Open wounds in the bark can be caused by chance encounters, such as a deer eating the bark, or with the weed eater or mower during garden maintenance. However, an often overlooked risk is due to branches rubbing against each other. When the wind blows resulting in rubbing, an open wound can persist throughout the season. This continuously exposes the tree to possible carriers of infection. When pruning your trees always look for crossing branches or new branches that are in a growth pattern that will cause them to cross as the season progresses. You can either cut the branch out entirely or cut it back to a lower position (which will promote a new branch growing at a different angle from the cut point.)



Air flow through the canopy of a tree is extremely important for reducing the risk of disease. A tree's canopy can trap humidity and warmth within it, creating a favorable environment for bacteria to grow. As a rule, I always cut away any branch that is growing towards the central leader. Think of a candelabra your main trunk of the tree branches out. Secondary branches form those first branches, but you want them to keep growing out and away from center. When looking at a cross section from above, it is ideal to have branches from the main trunk to be as evenly spaced as possible forming a “X” or “Y” with the center of the letter representing your main trunk. However, in general a tree will want to grow like this naturally and just a few snips here and there is all that is needed. If you prune to avoiding rubbing your tree will generally be in good shape. I do recommend, however, that if two branches are growing above and below one another in the same direction that you have at least 6-9 inches between them. Branches that are too close will undoubtedly result in the need to prune one of them out as they mature. I find it’s a lot easier to remove branches when there still twig size instead of waiting until there an inch thick or more (and so will your tree).



So, at this point were looking for branches that are rubbing or have the potential to do so. We are also creating airflow by keeping our branches growing out and away from center and ensuring spacing between our branches. You’ll notice that these two concepts are essentially the same process but with two different goals in mind. Other considerations are branches growing towards the ground, creating risks of infection by their contact with the ground. Branches growing 45-90 deg angle from the main branch may also be a concern. Often when laden with fruit branches at a lower angle crack or break under the strain of the harvest. Generally, you want your branches to grow in a 30-45 deg angle as they have better ability to withstand the fruit weight.


Always keep your eye out for sickly wood either discolored or shriveled up. It is always better to cut out an infection even if its on a main branch than to risk it infecting the entire tree or worse the entire orchard. Do this by pruning several inches below the site of infection to ensure all of it is caught. dispose of diseased branches by burning them immediately.


This “Day one” process in pruning is 80% or more of what your going to cut away form the tree and I find once you get a rhythm going it becomes trance like as you work through each tree circling it and imaging how its branches will stretch and grow.

 

2. Increased fruit production.

There are two approaches you can take with any fruit tree.

Food forest- Higher canopies and a more natural look however generally lower pounds of fruit per acre

Commercial production- Smaller trees pruned to give higher yields and easier to pick but generally shorter living trees.


production tree at a local peach farm

I am not going to tell you that a Food forest is more beautiful than a well-manicured production orchard. Fact is I think they're both beautiful but in completely different ways. When I began my orchard I started with production in mind. Spacing the trees closely together in very uniform lines to maximize the most trees in the smallest space possible. The straight clean lines really appeal to my personality type and maximizing production pulls at the miser in me. As the years progress, the desire for my orchard to become an escape that I can get lost in with places to sit and watch the birds has become a higher priority for me, so I have shifted to more of a food forest setup. That all being said you don’t have to be strictly one or the other you can have a “food forest” with trees mixed in pruned in a production method. Do what makes you happy and works for you.


What is the difference in how we prune and manage these two methods? Simply stated it all falls back to that central leader we discussed earlier. All trees produce one or multiple central leaders and if cut they will continue to try to regrow this central leader year after year. Maintaining a healthy central leader following the pruning practices mentioned above will result in a tall tree with even branches and a good shape. Generally allowing multiple central leaders to form is detrimental to the long-term health of the tree. Conversely cutting the central leader and maintaining the removal of subsequent leaders that develop each season will result in a dwarfed tree regardless of whether it is on “Dwarfing rootstock” or not. In my experience you can expect the branches to reach 6-10’ higher than the top of the cut central leader or main trunk.


In conclusion the difference between pruning for food forest or production is:


Food forest trees have a tall central leader with branches evenly spaced up and down the trunk as well as around the tree resulting in a more natural canopied look. These trees are generally longer lived further spaced apart and can be harder to harvest without the use of ladders or other tools increasing your reach.


Production trees have their central leader cut down to around 2-3’ from the ground where branching is prioritized in the pruning process resulting in a wine glass look. These trees are often shorter lived spaced much tighter together and ease of harvest is prioritized. Production orchards may have their trees planted as a hedgerow where only 2 sides of the tree are accessible (3-5’ apart) or have them spaced where you can just squeeze between them (6-10’ apart) with usually more spacing between rows.


 

3. Controlling the size of your tree.

This is where rootstock is often mentioned to convince people who want smaller trees to buy trees grafted to dwarfing rootstock. Although this is not wrong, I strongly encourage you to buy rootstock based on your soil and weather conditions NOT how much it dwarfs the tree. Whether you have heavy soil vs sand or if your trees will have wet feet or if you receive droughts, do you have pest or disease concerns in your area that should be considered? These are all aspects to consider when selecting your rootstock. The size of any tree can be managed with once or twice a year pruning.


If you prune your trees with the production method, then the only additional pruning you may do to control size is top the branches at a given height that works best for you to conserve energy into lower growth and keep the fruit at a height that can be reached easily. If you maintain a primary central leader, there may come a point when you really don’t want the tree to grow much larger, at which point you can cut that leader and it will reduce the potential height of the tree to a managed height that works for you. Alternatively, maybe your tree ended up doing better than you had anticipated and your spacing between trees is a bit tighter than you anticipated. Again, this is easily maintained with once or twice a year cleanup pruning to maintain the Health, Shape, and Size of your trees.

 

4. Corrective Action

There may come a time where drastic corrective actions may be required to fix the shape of a tree due to a poor pruning effort or even save a tree that has been infected with disease. Generally correcting a poor pruning job is simple enough but often results in a very naked tree that may take a year or more to fill back out. I would recommend in this scenario to do what you believe is best. In my experience waiting to fix the problem or hoping that the tree will fix itself often results in a much harsher prune later on or even the loss of a good tree. As a result I believe its best to do the hard stuff as early on as possible.

this peach lost its central leader and still produces heavy yields every year

With regards to disease, most of the time diseases start in the branches and spread to the trunk eventually consuming the entire tree. Some diseases move slowly where others take only a few days. If you notice a branch that has wilted leaves and the stems become discolored or shriveled this is a good indicator that a branch needs to be removed. Go back to where you see healthy growth then go back a bit further and make a clean cut. Don’t forget to sterilize your tools before and after. If your trunk becomes infected it is possible to still save the tree by cutting down all the infected growth, then allowing the tree to produce a new leader from the old trunk. As hard as it may be to start over, its often better than loosing the entire tree.



 

Learning how to prune your trees is a process and requires some trial and error. If this is your first time you will undoubtedly be nervous about messing up. Have confidence that trees are resilient and even if you do make mistakes you can always correct them in the next season. The tree will be a bit larger and you will have earned more experience by seeing what worked and what didn’t in previous years. I hope this article can help give you confidence in deciding how to prune your trees and results in bountiful harvests for you and yours.

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