Fun with Fruit Trees in the Spring

Plants that are both decorative and fruitful are near and dear to my heart. Apple and pear trees fit that slot perfectly.

This past week I found myself rather belatedly pruning some fruit trees on the family farm. Normally winter pruning is something done on apples in late winter or very early spring. This spring has been rather warm and everything seems a bit ahead of itself. I would have liked to have been out there doing the pruning in early March. Still the leaves are still young and the flower buds hadn’t started to break just yet, so when I found myself on the farm with a bow saw, pruning shears, and a little spare time, I made the best of it.

Pruning of the pome fruits, apples, pears, and the lesser known quince, is one of those things that is both easy to get started on, yet can look like magic from the outside. The ultimate goal is to help balance the tree with regards to new growth and older, fruiting wood. Without new growth each year, the tree can stagnate or become cyclic in its fruiting cycle. When it goes cyclic, it will often bear very heavily every second or third year, and bear next to nothing the other years.

Pome fruit trees fruit best on second year growth, fruiting spurs (short branchlet looking things a few inches long at most), or in some cases the shoot tips. Watching where fruit forms on your tree will provide clues as to how to prune in the future.

Another goal of pruning is to contain the size of the fruit tree. It isn’t an accident that fruit is often borne most heavily on the highest branches. Those branches get the most sun, and are the farthest away from ground dwelling herbivores that might consume the fruit before it is ripe and falls down to their level. By pruning upwards pointing branches, you can guide the tree into an easier to harvest form. By clipping the tip of a young, unbranched tree you stimulate more growth in the side branches. Clipping a newly planted fruit tree at about 4 to 5 feet in height will typically guarantee a fork in the tree at that height.

Another important goal in pruning fruit trees is to improve their health. This might be the simplest approach to start learning as well. When branches cross, literally grow across each other and touching, they will rub against each other and wear holes in the bark of the branches. Because the branches are rubbing in the wind, these injuries tend not to heal properly. By clipping out branches that are crossing and rubbing, you help keep the bark intact, and disease out.

You can also clip out blighted branches. Cut the branch at least 5 to 6 inches back into healthy looking wood, ideally back at a joint so that you remove an entire diseased branch cleanly. A solution of 10% bleach or 70% rubbing alcohol can be used to sanitize the shears or saw between cuts, and this is particularly important when trying to remove an infection from a tree.

This week I planted out an asiatic pear tree. In October of 2008 a co-worker passed me a pile of very excellent asiatic pears, and I started the tree from a seed from that batch. In mid April of 2012 the tree was over 7 feet tall, in a 5 gallon bucket of soil, and the roots were grown through the drain holes into the bottom of the greenhouse.

I pried up the roots as best as I could with a broadfork, carted the tree out into the back, and planted it firmly into the ground. I pruned it down to about 5 feet, clipped off several large branches that were growing in the wrong direction, and staked it straight. Pruning the tree at planting helps balance damage done to the roots, fewer roots, fewer branches for the roots to support.

At the same time I tied down a couple of the side branches. Pear trees tend to produce heavily, and large branches can snap off under the weight of the fruit. By training the branches to grow at a wider angle, there is less chance of the branch breaking later in life.

I piled on several inches of undyed, double ground mulch to a circle about 4 feet across. This helps hold in moisture, provides a buffer zone for when the lawn mower passes by, and the double ground wood mulch provides an excellent base for proper soil microbes to form a symbiotic relationship with the tree. The red, black, or brown dyed mulch all work great as well. I find that away from the house, the undyed mulch forms an aesthetic framing for a fruit tree without drawing attention away from the tree.

Happy Gardening out there!

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