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Pruning

Proper techniques will put your backyard orchard a cut above the competition

See part 2 here

Growing fruit trees in backyard orchards may seem like a mystery to some gardeners. Dream of a never-ending supply of ripe, luscious fruit growing without thought or effort on your part and you will be disappointed. But learn and apply the basic fruit-growing techniques, and you will enjoy some of the tastiest of all garden produce.

Pruning is among the most important and timely tasks at hand. In my horticultural career, I write about and teach many different subjects. Perhaps none is more controversial than pruning trees, specifically fruit trees. Pruning is one of the more difficult concepts for some gardeners to grasp, and confusion abounds.

The subject can be a source of marital discord. On occasion, couples have come to my office with pictures of their fruit trees in hand. I get involved only when they show me a photograph of the tree in question. One of them wants to remove a certain branch, and the other disagrees. Although the language they use varies, the basic remark 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 sometimes feel I could start a new career as a horticultural marriage counselor. But does a horticultural marriage counselor save marriages or save trees?

I hope it's possible to do both.

Here are some basic pruning guidelines for those who need to resolve potential conflicts.

Never prune fruit trees like you would shade trees. Prune fruit trees to stimulate the production of the wood that produces the fruit. And prune the limbs so they will provide enough support so the tree won't break down. In other words, prune for fruit production and tree strength.

To do that, you must understand how the trees grow. While this might seem to be a ridiculously simple idea, it confuses many pruners. If you don't understand where the fruit comes from, you will never prune the tree correctly.

This week I'll focus on the bearing habits. Next week I'll talk about "training" the trees.

The growth of the fruit buds determines the fruit crop. Formation of the fruit always depends on the flower, so a critical part of the pruning is stimulating abundant flower production.

In the home orchard, there are two basic types of fruits. Pome fruits include apples, pears and quinces. These trees produce clusters of flower buds on the terminal ends of specialized fruiting stems called spurs. Some varieties also produce on lateral buds.

Stone fruits usually bear their fruit on wood that grew the previous year. Peaches always bear their fruit on lateral buds, never on terminal buds. Apricot trees bear on 1-year-old wood, but their main production comes

on lateral spurs. Plums and prunes produce their fruit in much the same way.

Sweet cherries produce their fruit on lateral buds, never on the terminal buds. Although they produce on the shoots, they also produce fruit on spurlike growths. Sour or pie cherries produce their fruit on lateral buds. These bear mostly on shoots and do not have as many on spurs as do sweet cherries.

The spurs on the plum and cherry bear their flower buds laterally, and the terminal bud is generally a leaf bud. Apples and pears form a terminal flower bud, so further elongation of the spur is forced out of a straight line. This makes the spurs very twisted, developing interesting shapes as they produce fruit for many years.

Understanding the differences in fruiting habits is essential to determine the management of a tree.

Pome fruits produce on spurs that need to be encouraged and developed. They always produce their fruit on wood that is at least 2 years old. The spurs themselves may live for years and produce fruit for as long as two decades.

They never produce fruit on 1-year-old vegetative shoots, commonly known as watersprouts. These sprouts shade the fruiting spurs and further interfere with the production of good, high-quality fruit. Unfortunately, most of these trees have an overabundance of these non-fruiting shoots.

When pruning apples, preserve the spurs and eliminate the watersprouts. Heavy, misdirected pruning stimulates the growth of the one-year old sprouts that have no flower buds. Without the flower buds, there is no fruit. Do not prune pome fruit trees heavily, because the spurs on the trees live and continue to produce fruit for years.

Peaches bear on 1-year-old wood. Prune peaches heavily to force new wood to grow that will then produce more fruit. Peaches require constant renewal to keep an adequate area of prime, fruit-producing wood.

Apricots, plums, prunes and sweet and pie cherries are pruned less than peaches but more than apples. Too much pruning on these trees makes them produce too many sprouts that produce no fruit.

Take heart. Spending time learning about fruit trees not only helps the trees grow better, it might make your relationships go a little more smoothly. Attending a pruning class or reading a bulletin is a lot cheaper than counseling and is, horticulturally speaking, better for your own happiness.


Listen to Larry Sagers on the KSL Greenhouse show on Saturdays from 8 to 11 a.m. on KSL Radio. The subject this week is pruning grape vines.