People often hire me to prune their fruit trees this time of year. While I appreciate the work, most basic pruning, especially on young trees that haven't been previously damaged or badly pruned, can be done by anyone with some basic information. Now that the leaves have fallen and fruit trees are dormant for the winter, this is the perfect time to give them a pruning that will determine the size and shape they will grow into next spring.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The main reason to prune trees is to increase air circulation, which protects against insect infestation and disease. An air-congested tree will also stop fruiting, so it generally makes sense to remove anything that is growing toward the center for a better flow. But before you start hacking branches, try this simple system for figuring out what to cut and why.
Follow the Leaders
First, find a tree's vertical leaders. Most have two to five leaders that split from the main trunk and should be balanced with each other. Choose no more than five leaders and plan to remove the others to leave room in the middle for air circulation and for fruit to grow.
Working from the vertical leaders, determine which of the horizontal branches will make up the fruiting scaffold. Remember that these branches will eventually be weighted down with fruit and will fall into a horizontal position.
Now that you have developed a basic vision of how you want the tree to look, you are ready for the Seven Ds to help determine your next move:
Dead: This is obvious. If it's dead, cut it off.
Dying: Less obvious. Look for brittle, black tips.
Damaged: Broken spots, torn places, maybe damaged by a storm, etc.
Diseased: This can be tricky to spot. In general, moss and lichen are not diseases, but mildew, mold and fungus are.
Deranged: Look for weird angles, branches twisted around others, limbs growing in the wrong direction.
Doubling: If two branches are growing parallel and close together, remove one. If two branches are competing for space, choose the one that looks healthiest.
Dangerous: Anything that could smack somebody in the face or fall on a building.
Tools of the Trade
In general, start with the biggest cuts and work to the smallest, so you'll probably begin with a saw, move to loppers and finish with hand pruners.
Pruning saws come in all shapes and sizes but I prefer a long-handled saw with a curved blade. Invest in quality tools to get quality cuts. Just like humans, trees heal much better when cut with sharp, clean blades. So make sure all of your tools are sharp, well-oiled and in prime working condition. Use a clean rag and some rubbing alcohol to clean your blade between trees.
You will also need a good pair of bypass loppers. I use titanium ones with a curved, parrot-beak blade. Straight blades seem more likely to damage trees. And, of course, the most essential tool for every gardener is hand pruners. I am a snob about hand pruners and only use Felco brand, which are easy to sharpen and come in a variety of sizes. The $60 pair I bought almost 20 years ago are still in great shape.
In my opinion, chainsaw work or any pruning that removes more than one-third of the tree should be done by a professional or at least with their supervision. Invest in a certified arborist if you're not an experienced pruner and your tree seems to need major surgery.
Making a Proper Cut
It is possible to kill a tree with bad pruning and the most common cause of this is when a bad cut becomes infected. To avoid this use sharp, clean tools and make a smooth, clean cut.
Cut limbs more than one inch in diameter back to the branch junction. Half-cut limbs that hang awkwardly from the tree don't thrive. New growth will shoot from the dormant bud-node just below the cut, so choose where you want the new shoot to go. For small branches, cut back to the branch junction or within a quarter-inch of a node. Again, choose where to cut based on which direction the bud faces.
If possible, angle cuts so the exposed wound faces toward the ground. Wounds can get sunburnt or in wet weather collect water that seeps under the bark and causes decay.
Cut right up to the branch collar, which is the raised ridge in the bark near where the branch comes out of the mother branch or trunk. Cell division occurs rapidly in this collar, sending out healing tissue to cover the wound. Do not cut off any portion of the branch collar, but don't leave a big stub either. Determine what is too much and what is too little then split the difference.
Once you decide exactly where to make the cut, square off your posture, double check your angle and commit. Make the cut in one smooth motion. If you are using loppers, put your weight into it. If you are using a pruning saw, work steadily and with enough power to remove the branch without having to pull the saw out until it's done. When using the saw, make an undercut one-third of the way through the branch from below, then saw the rest of the way through from above. If you do get a rip, clean it up by making a new, full cut.
Learn From Your Mistakes
Watch the way the tree responds to the pruning work. It will grow in the directions you sent it, but it may also surprise you! Make notes of what you observe and adjust your approach accordingly. Don't freak out if you realize halfway through the season that you messed up! Just let the tree do its thing and wait until it goes dormant next year to try again. Good luck!
Heather Jo Flores is an artist, musician, author, yogini and vagabond farmer. She wrote Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into A Garden and Your Neighborhood Into a Community (344 pages, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2006.) Find her on Facebook or at www.heatherjoflores.com.