suggestions sought for pruning young, struggling orchard

feijoas(New Zealand)March 30, 2013

I'm helping in a school orchard, and many of the donated trees were in pretty rough condition when planted last winter: overgrown, poorly shaped etc
I would have headed them back when planting, but the er, brutality of reducing a 'tree' to a 'stick' could well have created major dramas, and they were planted as-is.
We've had an extremely dry summer, and while the trees have survived, many of their branches have partially died off.
I'd like to head them back, and either take off ALL the branches since there's no decent scaffold branches, and choose scaffolds from new growth.
OR I could prune branches that have partially died back to a strong upward-facing bud to create scaffolds?

I'm in New Zealand, and it's supposed to be autumn, but it doesn't seem to be coming this year!

This post was edited by feijoas on Sat, Mar 30, 13 at 4:31

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alan haigh

Feigoas, I love your message. I wish you had included your age as you seem more articulate than the average U.S. college grad.

You can completely remove branches- or leave a bit of stub if you want to encourage the formation of smaller branches at the site of removed ones.

It is best to not leave any branches more than half the diameter of the trunk at point of attachment to trunk. Many vigorous varieties benefit with making the ratio not more than 3-1 trunk to scaffold diameter.

The easiest, fastest method for most varieties is to remove no other branches and maintain a central leader until trees begin bearing crops. Then you thin crowding branches and choose permanent scaffolds.

Because you got so little growth first season, you can top the trees now to the height where you want to generate your first tier of scaffolds, but it may not be necessary. If you do, choose the straightest shoot to continue the trunk and pinch back the competition enough to let the straight one dominate. Once they are slowed down you can spread the competing buds to a more horizontal positon (say 65 degrees).

    Bookmark   March 30, 2013 at 11:20AM
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alan haigh

Feigoas, I love your message. I wish you had included your age as you seem more articulate than the average U.S. college grad.

You can completely remove branches- or leave a bit of stub if you want to encourage the formation of smaller branches at the site of removed ones.

It is best to not leave any branches more than half the diameter of the trunk at point of attachment to trunk. Many vigorous varieties benefit with making the ratio not more than 3-1 trunk to scaffold diameter.

The easiest, fastest method for most varieties is to remove no other branches and maintain a central leader until trees begin bearing crops. Then you thin crowding branches and choose permanent scaffolds.

Because you got so little growth first season, you can top the trees now to the height where you want to generate your first tier of scaffolds, but it may not be necessary. If you do, choose the straightest shoot to continue the trunk and pinch back the competition enough to let the straight one dominate. Once they are slowed down you can spread the competing buds to a more horizontal positon (say 65 degrees).

    Bookmark   March 30, 2013 at 11:30AM
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feijoas(New Zealand)

Actually I'm significantly...more mature...than the average U.S. college grad ; )
Thanks for your help harvestman; now you've done it, I'm writing a novel...

"The easiest, fastest method for most varieties is to remove no other branches and maintain a central leader until trees begin bearing crops"
Interesting. I was envisaging the opposite: that allowing a tree to put lots of energy into apical growth, then cutting it all off, would increase the timeframe for getting good scaffolds going.

"It is best to not leave any branches more than half the diameter of the trunk "
That is not a problem! The peaches/nectarines in particular are basically a central leader, say 3/4 inch diameter, with a porcupine of tiny, half-dead twigs.

Summer apparently finished this afternoon. Since I can't even pretend I'm summer pruning anymore, do you suggest I wait and dormant prune (If I decide to do anything this season), or just do it now?
I'm not too worried about the pomes, but there's quite a few stonefruit, and silverleaf is apparently an issue in NZ.

I'm reading some pretty conflicting info on spreading branches anmd I'd really appreciate advice; while I'll have ages before many of the trees will have branches, let alone need spreading, I have a couple of plums and pears which are growing very vertically.
The orchard is in a very windy location, and since there's young kids around, I'd like to avoid tripping/impaling hazards like tying branches down etc.
I plan to make dowel spreaders with nails at the ends. I'm struggling to see how I get the varying lengths correct. Would I cut them all too long and measure them out 'in the field', putting a nail in both ends of the dowel as I go?
I was planning to use a dowel I could cut with secateurs, but the photos of spreaders I've seen online all look way too heavy-duty for that!

    Bookmark   March 31, 2013 at 4:28AM
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alan haigh

I thought we were taking only about apples although rereading your message I see I did not have any reason for the assumption.

Peaches are not so cooperative as two year wood can refuse to put out growing shoots so you have to be careful about heading only to living buds. Also peaches are often trained as an open center from the beginning by leaving large diameter branches and spreading them- as long as there are 3 well distributed and more or less the same size. (you can even use a V shape and only have 2 scaffolds- or start with more scaffolds and reduce later).

I prefer training even peaches to a central leader at first- much like an apple and than converting it to open center in 2 or 3 years, but this is not the most common method.

Apical growth is not restricted by maintaining a central leader- but heading cuts may delay over all growth a bit- especially once roots have recovered from transplanting. Any pruning of immature wood is dwarfing (the book is "all pruning is dwarfing" but the book is wrong).

There may be a source for tree spreaders in Australia if none are there but you can also tie branches with string using some kind of anchor- just don't let the string girdle the branch as the tree grows. For very young branches laundry clothing pins can be used which is often a technique applied to training apples.

If you search on-line you can quickly get visuals of training methods.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2013 at 6:05AM
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feijoas(New Zealand)

Hello again harvestman.
Apologies for not being clear on what's actually in the orchard: various pomes and stones, none of which are very pretty right now...
You mention peaches "can refuse to put out growing shoots" on 2nd year wood.
Is that the case with nectarines and apricots too? I've looked around online, but can't seem to find info about severe pruning of badly trained young trees..
The apricots are pretty terrible: basically a very tall trunk, say 3/4 inch in diameter, 5ft tall, with a topknot of malformed branches.
As the trees were randomly donated, I haven't a clue of their age. but judging by the apricot's height, and taking their poor health into account, I imagine they're older than two.
I was hoping to head back to a few feet tall, which would leave NO branches.
But if this drastic treatment might mean it won't shoot, I better not!

    Bookmark   May 1, 2013 at 4:00AM
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alan haigh

The only stone fruit I have headed is peaches - also have had them snap in severe weather and by falling trees. I don't know what would be your luck with an apricot or any other stone fruit- although I assume nectarines would respond like a peach.

Apricots are more prone to sending out new wood from down below when not cut, however, so that's a good sign.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2013 at 4:57AM
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alan haigh

I should add that your key concern should be getting the trees back to vigorous growth. Meantime if all you do is cut back dead wood you will not fall behind in the renovating process.

Water and no weed competition along with a nitrogen source are probably what is needed most.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2013 at 4:59AM
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feijoas(New Zealand)

Thanks, I'll focus on feeding the trees: improving the soil, mulching etc and see how they look in summer, which is when I plan to do most of my pruning.
I'll talk to one of our horticultural educational places; they might have recommendations for NZ.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2013 at 6:21AM
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