Still learning to prune ...

marknmtJuly 17, 2012

I used to know a lot more about pruning than I do now, but I like to think that I'm starting to gain on it a little. This year what really sunk in for me (for pomes, at least) is the need to remove certain competing branches.

I've always had a hard time removing wood. The bigger the branch, the more difficult it is for me to remove it. So once a branch gets any size I'm inclined to leave it. Then I learned (from reading here, thank you all!) that leaders have to be allowed to dominate if they are ever going to support productive wood. Pretenders to the throne cannot be tolerated; this tree growing stuff is not about democracy.

Suddenly I found myself enthusiastically removing any branches that were more than 1/3 the size of the branch they emerged from.

Then I realized I don't want to necessarily remove the whole branch -if it's a spur-producing, well-placed, pencil-sized branch I can just cut it back hard to a bud and in a couple of years it'll be producing fruit again.

I think I'm starting to see both my pear and my apple more clearly now. I've quit being afraid of big cuts- amazing what a tree will come back from. And it's amazing what some of the new growth will do if competition is removed.

Anyhow, that's where I am now. This is a thank you note to those many here who have helped.


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Most pruning should be done in late winter, after the threat of severe cold has passed. SUmmer pruning produces a dwarfing effect, while the spring pruning creates growth, and shape.

The type of tree depends on what style to train/prune. Most plums are recommended as an open center style tree. Peaches, as a rule, are always grown as an open center tree.

Apples and pears can be either or, but I think it depends on the var. of tree. Most apples/pears grow upright, and are better as central leader/modified leader system.

Personally, due to space, most if not all my fruit trees are being trained as central leaders. THe apple I have is the exeption, since it was trained as a central leader before I bought it. It seems to suppliment the natrual growth type of the honeygold apple tree :D

The only thing I can think of, is that if you are pruning pear, you should not prune as harshly as you would an apple, and definitely not as harsh as a Japanese plum or peach. It encourages too much non fruiting wood, can cause blight/diseases (pears seem to be more suceptible), and also cause the tree to produce suckers. You should try to avoid major pruning of a pear tree, and stick with thinning cuts, unless its necassary to remove larger branches.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2012 at 8:39AM
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Sometime in our life of growing fruit trees we need to be reminded that the object is FRUIT not trees. Al

    Bookmark   July 18, 2012 at 9:37AM
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Scott F Smith(6B/7A MD)

Mark, it sounds like you are learning to "see" what your future tree would look like with some proposed cut made. When you have that vision its easy to make those big thinning cuts that are required. Before that point its really hard and most beginner pruners just go chicken and let their tree get ahead of them. Its like being a first-time parent, the kid is misbehaving and you have no idea how to discipline it. A few failed attempts later and it starts to make sense, hopefully soon enough before the kid gets totally out of control!

I have had major issues getting some over-vigorous pears under control. It has been my biggest pruning problem overall. Like candianplant says, they produce tons of suckers if pruned heavily. What I have been doing recently that works is first radically prune to make sure the tree is low enough (I had let them get too tall), then in summer keep going after the suckers and remove 80-90% of them so there are only a few coming from the very top. If I had known what I was doing to begin with I could have avoided the problem I expect. I had some plum trees that were going absolutely nuts with growth and found that several years in a row of regular summer thinning of suckers would get them calmed down eventually. Both of these plantings are super duper close, less than 3' per tree on non-dwarfing stock, so I was really setting myself up. But it has been a great learning experience on pruning for size control.

In twenty more years I will finally have this pruning business figured out.


    Bookmark   July 18, 2012 at 9:54AM
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Yeah, it's about learning "what's next". I still don't see everything with the clarity I'd like -maybe never will- but I'm starting to realize some of the reshuffling that goes on when you remove some things and thereby create opportunity for certain other things.

When I bought my pear a few years ago I was worried about keeping it small enough, and the orchardist told me to summer prune it to keep it to size; Don Yellman made it clear in posts here that once a tree was well established and getting well into its adolescence one could keep it under control with summer pruning. Others here have helped fill in details, such as watching for suckers and blight vulnerability on new growth.

Pears, even more than apples, seem to love to go vertical. I just keep whittling out anything that isn't where I want it, always keeping in mind the need for strong and well-placed pencils to support spurs and fruit.

Stone fruit, of course, need a different approach, but you still want to maintain the same things: an open, airy and well-lit center, strong underlying structure, and well-placed wood of bearing age.

Partly just thinking aloud, as it were, but that's the way I'm seeing the puzzle at the moment!

Comments and corrections always welcome.


    Bookmark   July 18, 2012 at 5:15PM
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Hi There,

Like Scott, this spring I pruned of a big branch that competed with the main trunk off my Asian pear. Right now, I have these many vertical shoots from many branches. Are those suckers?

Markmnt said "I just keep whittling out anything that isn't where I want it, always keeping in mind the need for strong and well-placed pencils to support spurs and fruit.". My problem is... I don't know which shoots to keep and which to prune off. It's overwhelming.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2012 at 7:10PM
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Those are watersprouts (some people probably call them suckers, but I think of suckers as unwanted shoots that spring from the roots) and they definitely fit the category of something that isn't where you want it to be. Clip them out at your convenience. They are useful for grafting/budding scions, and on occasion you might want to leave one to replace an errant or damaged branch: bend it down and remove the branch it is to replace.

Harvestman has a useful analogy about what to keep and what to replace. He suggests thinking of the trunk of a tree as the main highway and the scaffold branches as large streets. The side streets are the little residential streets, and in the analogy those are the pencils. (Pencils to me, if I understand Hman correctly, are the growth that will bear fruit on pomes in their second and third years, and then decline.) The parking spots are where the fruit grows. He'll correct me if I muddled it.

At any rate, I've come to view scaffold branches as something to hold pencils, and the trunk as something that is there to hold scaffold branches. Taking this view has helped me decide what to keep and what to prune, and has helped me deal with that overwhelmed feeling.

Again, comments and corrects welcome!


    Bookmark   July 18, 2012 at 9:31PM
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alan haigh

What I found helpful when I started doing this, beyond reading everything I could about it was to check out some commercial orchards. Look at the trees right after pruning and look at the trees in mid-summer. Count the number of scaffolds on a mature tree. Check the vertical distance between upper and lower scaffolds on a central leader tree.

When you realize that a 14' tall apple tree may have only 6 or 7 scaffolds on the entire tree it helps you plan for the long haul and remove surplus branches early enough to help remaining ones have room to branch out.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2012 at 5:33AM
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THe hard part is creating the scaffolds IMO. I had a bit of a foresight problem, mainly due to the fact I expected to see the results right away. I didnt think that it would take months to see a proper shape.

I go out and take a look at my trees every day, and mentaly see where Im going to have to prune in SPRING. My trees are too young to summer prune. Every week it changes, as the young trees grow. I was planning on trimming one of the larger branches on my apple to balance it out, only to find out this year, that its the highest bearing branch, so I instead let branches on the opposite side grow to balance it.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2012 at 8:19AM
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I read everyone's advice a few times for better understanding. Thank you all for your advice.

Markmnt - If I choose to replace damaged branches with a few water sprouts, would these water sprouts become the "pencils" per your analogy? They would behave like the pencils should and bear fruit down the road, right? I really like the road analogy.

Another question: What'd happen if I removed all the water sprouts? I am worried that it'd mean I remove all the growth of a tree!!!

Hope you don't mind my asking all these questions.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2012 at 12:47PM
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No, I don't mind your asking me questions, but I have to warn you that I'm not your best source here, so when you see the more experienced correcting me listen to them. We'll both learn something.

"Pencil" describes the size of the wood, with wood at pencil-sized the most useful to us in terms of spur production. But even scaffold branches and tree trunks were pencils once. We train and encourage the first pencil to grow into a trunk, and when it produces a few pencils we train a few of those to be scaffolds, and when those produce pencils we start to manage them for fruit production.

You might want to train a watersprout to become a scaffold branch. To do that you bend it over to the near-horizontal and remove its competition- that means cutting off the branch it is replacing.

Watersprouts can become productive wood, but vertical growth is slow to form spurs and will point into the heart of the tree where it can't get light and air. Generally better to remove watersprouts- let the energy go where it can be better used. It may feel like you're removing all the growth, but you're not. The tree will respond by putting its energies into the only places left, and that's important to understand. If you allow the tree to dissipate its energy on wayward grow then the important stuff won't get what it needs.

In fact, as a general rule you can clip off anything that points straight up, straight down, or into rather than away from the tree.

I like the road analogy too; I'm glad to have stolen it from Harvestman :-).

Good luck,


    Bookmark   July 19, 2012 at 9:17PM
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Thank you very much, Markmnt. Your explanation is very clear and easy to follow (perfect for me) and make a lot of sense to me.

Like many inexperienced backyard gardeners, when I planted my first few fruit trees 3-4 years ago, I did not know I needed to prune them since they were young.

There are a lot to learn. I'll be out in the backyard this weekend with a pruner. Thank you for your help.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2012 at 10:26PM
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