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One of the most common questions I am asked is, "How and when do I prune my fruit trees?" It is a frustrating question because there is no set or absolute answer. Few if any horticultural practices generate as much disagreement as pruning. The disagreements range from humorous to occasionally serious.

Sometimes I am asked to arbitrate pruning disputes between couples. The disagreements seem to result from two people being cooped together through long, dreary winters. As they venture forth in the spring, one of the first garden activities is pruning. One wants to remove a certain branch, and the other disagrees. I seem to get involved when they show up at my office bearing a photograph of the tree in question.Although the language each uses varies, the basic question is always, "Please mark each branch my spouse should remove." At that point, I could close my eyes and point at random to the picture. Invariably, no matter what branch I point to, one spouse will say to the other, "See, I told you so!"

I am not a marriage counselor, but I hope some basic pruning guidelines will resolve potential conflicts. In addition to saving the marriage, it may even help save a few fruit trees. Pruning physiology and philosophy have had volumes and volumes written on the research and the practices. Boiling this down to practical advice is difficult, but necessary, as you face your trees this spring.

Venture into the orchard with saw and loppers in your hands and two phrases in your mind. The first phrase is "clean it up" and the second is "thin it out." Most common pruning needs are taken care of by these two basic guidelines.

As I look at my trees, they certainly bear some cleaning up. Record snowfalls left broken branches and other branches have died from insects and diseases. Remove these branches and clean out any suckers growing from the base of the plant and water sprouts growing in the top of the plant. This long willowy growth does not produce fruit and shades those branches where the fruit is growing. This cleaning process removes much of the wood that is not useful to the tree.

The second phrase, "thin it out," is also good advice. Fruit responds to light, and when the branches are too thick, light doesn't hit the fruit. With open-center-type trees, such as peaches, the thinning process should remove excessive growth in the middle of the tree as well as the weaker growth out along the limbs. Upright trees such as apples should be thinned near the top of the tree to allow sunlight to penetrate.

During the thinning process, remove parallel branches, crossing branches and hanging branches. If the tree still seems to have excessive growth, don't start cutting the ends of the branches off. For the most part, cutting the ends of the branches off simply stimulates growth, making the tree thicker and more difficult to prune the following year. If additional thinning is done, cut to side branches to remove the uppermost growth. Make the pruning cuts so that they direct the growth to areas that receive adequate sunshine.

If you would like more information on pruning fruit trees, send for our "Pruning the Orchard" (50 cents plus 90 cents for postage). Pick it up at the office for 50 cents or attend one of the free classes offered by USU Extension Service in Salt Lake County. Instructors are Larry Sagers and Jerry Goodspeed unless otherwise noted. There is no charge for the workshops, and handouts will be available for a minimal cost.

Pruning workshop: Saturday, Feb. 27, 9673 S. 3100 East, Sandy, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 1-3 p.m.

Pruning and propagating fruit trees: Thursday, March 4, 4 p.m. Salt Palace, Room C102 (outside the main assembly hall near the east entrance).

Pruning fruit trees: Saturday, March 6, 1 p.m. or 3 p.m., Salt Palace, Room C102. Instructor: Dr. Tony Hatch, Utah State University Extension fruit specialist.

Tree fruit workshop: Thursday, March 11, 2-4 p.m. or 7-9 p.m., County Government Center, 2001 S. State St., Room S1007.

Pruning workshop: Saturday, March 13, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. or 1-3 p.m., Mark Redd orchard, 815 E. Vine St., Murray.