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Pruning tips
Want sweet, tree-ripened fruit? Some careful attention to trees helps

Looking for some great taste treats? Want sweet, tree-ripened, kissed-by-the-sun fruit? Grow your own stone fruits to satisfy these pleasures.

Stone fruits are those with a single seed or pit such as peach, nectarines, cherry, plum, apricots and almond. Although these fruits are almost divine, they need very practical, down-to-earth care.My favorite pruning teacher is Tony Hatch, who has been the Utah State University Extension Service fruit specialist for many years. Although his health no longer lets him keep his same active role, I persuaded him to give another pruning lesson on stone fruits.

Hatch has spent his life in the fruit industry, being raised on an orchard in Colonia Juarez, Mexico. He studied fruit production at Brigham Young University, Utah State University and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. After completing his formal degrees, and he spent his career helping commercial and backyard orchardists in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Utah.

Before taking your lesson from Hatch, remember that all the stone fruits are not the same.

Cherry trees can easily grow more than 40 feet high with a similar spread; Almonds may grow to only 8 feet; and genetic dwarf peaches may be only 3 feet at maturity.

"Start training your stone fruit trees when you first plant them," Hatch advises. "Plant the tree so the bud is about four inches above ground. I like to head them off or cut them to about 28 inches high. Unless the tree has at least four well-spaced, strong branches going out at four points of the compass, remove all of the shoots or side branches.

"During the first growing season allow the trees to grow and put out as many leaves as possible. This will provide nourishment to the root system," Hatch says.

During the second dormant season, growers should select the main scaffold or primary branches. The tree will need to be trained to an open center or vase-shaped system where the inside branches are removed to allow the light to penetrate to the interior.

"What you want to do is to select four branches that go out at the four points of the compass. They need to come out at about a 45-degree angle from the trunk," Hatch says. Narrow upright branches do not make good scaffolds, because they will easily break off if the fruit gets too heavy.

"One common mistake is that the branches are allowed to develop at the same level or the same common point on the trunk," says Hatch. "This makes the branches place their load or stress on the same level. Do not have all the branches come out at the same point, or they will split the trunk when the fruit starts to enlarge and gets heavier."

Hatch says to space the branches 4 to 6 inches apart as they come off the trunk. This helps to distribute the weight and help with hardiness. The areas where the branches connect to the main trunk are the last to stop growing and are the most easily damaged by cold temperatures. By spreading out the branches, the tree can survive cold winters much better.

"Keep your trees vigorous because they bear on 1-year-old wood," Hatch says. "If you do not have enough new wood, you will not get a good crop of fruit. Continue to develop the tree from these four main branches. Let the one-year-old twigs grow from these branches for an abundant supply of quality fruit."

When asked about how to prune older established trees, Hatch offers this advice:

"Start by cutting out all the dead, broken and diseased branches.

Next cut away about 50 percent of the shoots that grew the previous years. Take out those that are hanging down, those that are shaded and those that are weak or spindly. Space the branches at least 6 inches apart so they have room for nice big peaches to grow.

"The next step is to cut back some of the longer branches to prevent them from getting out of bounds. Do not remove too much because those buds are where the fruit will come. Peaches will grow and be productive for 10 to 15 years, but this can be extended greatly if the trees are properly cared for. Part of this depends on winters, insects and watering," Hatch says.

Plums, apricots and even cherries are all pruned similarly. The secret is to develop good, strong crotches so the trees do not break down. All these trees bear on both 1-year-old wood and spurlike growths that live and produce fruit for two years and more. Check the trees carefully and prune them so there is good light penetration through the tree canopy.

Hatch offers a couple of other bits of advice on growing stone fruits.

"Choose standard trees rather than semi dwarf and dwarf types because there are problems when you try to grow them and they develop compatibility problems with the grafts. Most homeowners avoid pie cherries because they have a hard time spraying, picking and pitting the fruit."

"Almonds," Hatch says, "need to grow in a very protected spot because they bloom so early and usually freeze. They are trained to the same type of system as peaches, but they are not pruned as heavily because the fruits and the nuts inside never get as large and do not weigh as much."