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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Take a Little Off the Top…If You Can Reach It…

tree gone wildThis time of the year as I visit the Valley, I can’t help but notice the various stages of dishevelment the Valley’s fruit trees present. The dormant, defoliated apple trees display themselves as an unruly bunch of customers. Some have become an entire forest unto themselves, a dense confusion of twigs and branches. When Jonathan Chapman cast his apple pips about the countryside, I wonder if he gave any thought to the management of his efforts once they sprouted.prune me, please

I was raised on an apple orchard and participated in just about every facet of apple horticulture that comes to mind. The annual pruning of the orchard was an important routine; every tree in the entire acreage received a yearly haircut. In those days the orchard amounted to nearly 300 acres and not a single tree was neglected; each received its designated winter trimming. In mid-November the pruning crews converged on the rows of trees, and for the next three or four months we cut and trimmed for five and a half days a week.

My first recollection of pruning concerns the old standard red delicious variety of apple. These trees were huge, much like the specimens in our Valley. My very first victim was a day’s project. I climbed up into its branches in the morning, came down for lunch, and clambered up into its limbs again in the afternoon. If memory serves, pruning that first tree took me nearly the entire day. Thank goodness those old apple patriarchs were the last of their race.

For some strange reason I’ve had in mind to try my hand at pickling crabapples, so the other day I planted a bare root crabapple tree out back. After I dug the hole and added a couple shovelfuls of compost, I positioned the tree so the bud union cleared ground level by a good two inches and watered it in with a gallon of water/fish fertilizer solution. As I puttered and fussed over this lone little sapling, I thought about how shaping and pruning a fruit tree begins the moment it’s planted.

There are several reasons to employ a regular pruning regimen with your fruit trees, not the least of which is to prove who is to be master—man or the tree. For one, pruning promotes better fruit quality and quantity: opening up the center of the tree allows greater exposure to sunlight, coloring and ripening the fruit evenly; annual pruning  also leads to a consistent crop year after year instead of a bumper crop one year, a barren tree the next.  Secondly, pruning a tree helps shape it, insuring greater ease of pruning from one year to the next. Pruning also keeps the height manageable, prevents the tree from climbing into the heavens like Jack’s beanstalk. On the opposite end of the tree, proper pruning keeps the branches high enough from the ground so they won’t slap your hat from your head when you mow beneath it.

The height issue I addressed when I selected my “Calloway Crab M-7.” The “M-7” designation means my tree has been grafted onto a semi-dwarf rootstock which when pruning time rolls around means I won’t have to rent a bucket lift to prune the topmost branches. Dwarf fruit trees, depending on pruning styles, vary in height from 6-10 feet; semi-dwarves from 16 to 20. According to One Green World, from which I purchased my tree, the Calloway will be in the 6’ to 10’ range. Fine with me: a twenty foot crabapple would most certainly exhaust my pickling powers. For better maintenance and containment, I recommend the prospective backyard orchardist select dwarf rootstock whenever possible.

FYI: pruning of fruit trees begins at planting time. Once my Calloway Crabapple was firmly seated in the ground, I made my first pruning cut by snipping eight inches from the tip of the tree. snipping the tipLopping off the terminal tip of the new sapling accomplishes two things: the tree’s energy is diverted to the roots, encouraging root development, thus establishing a strong root system; nipping the terminal tip will force side branching, the point at which the gardener can begin shaping his tree. Off with its head: eight inches… cut just above a fat bud. It is advisable to stake the tree, too—especially here in our windy Valley. Once the tree establishes a sturdy root system and a straight trunk, the stake can be removed.

A well-shaped tree produces higher quality fruit and makes the task of pruning much easier. a well-shaped fruit treeThe end result is to create a tree that has only three or four “leaders,” the main limbs that branch from the trunk. Depending on the side branches, it may take a few pruning seasons to achieve this end. Patience is the key here. Because the shaping  takes place over a few years, don’t prune a young tree too heavily. To open up the tree’s center, it may be necessary to “spread” the branches. A piece of lath notched at both ends and cut to size serves this purpose well. Larger limbs can be pulled into the desired position by wiring the bent limb to a sturdy stake, forcing it away from the center of the tree. spreader in place(Man’s the master here, right?) A note of caution: bare wire around a branch will girdle it; thread the wire through a section of nylon tubing or old garden hose and position this buffer at the tension point around the limb.

As with any job, proper tools make it easier. Most pruning tasks can be accomplished with a long handled pair of loppers (the long handles allow for greater leverage to cut larger branches), a  pruning pole for a higher reach, a pruning saw, also on a long handle, and a sturdy hand-held saw. pruning toolsOh…and a three-point orchard ladder for those tippy-top branches you’ve given free rein by skipping a couple years of pruning (shame on you!) These tools should be sufficient if pruning is done regularly. Reserve chainsaw work for rotting or diseased leaders—or if you’ve been out of town for a dozen years and left your trees to fend for themselves.What a mess...

When it comes time for you and your tree to square off (you still have time but don’t wait much longer; the sap is starting to flow), consider following these steps: cut or snap off barehanded those frisky water sprouts (in orchardist parlance “suckers”) that bristle up the back of big limbs and leaders during the growing season. If these are lopped off, two more will appear in their place next season, so snapping them off is best if possible. After a half dozen years a node will develop and the suckers sprout from it like hairs from a mole. At this point, remove the node with a saw to avoid having to snip numerous individual suckers every season.bristling branch node

If you have large cuts to make—rotten or diseased leaders, thick limbs—make them next. Drooping limbs can be stiffened up by cutting them back (be sure to cut just ahead of a bud, especially if it’s a fruiting bud). Do the same with the vertical branches. Doing this will slow upward growth while at the same time promoting side branching and more fruiting wood. To allow more sunlight to reach the fruit, branches that overlie each other should either be cut back or one of the two cut off entirely. Over time these “crossover” limbs create a small jungle and will turn your tree into an unruly customer and come picking time create a barrier between you and your harvest. crossover limbs

After you have pruned your way around the tree, take a few steps back and check your work. Walk the perimeter for another perspective. I guarantee you’ll head back into the fray to snip another branch or two, do a bit more twig tweaking. If you have doubts whether to cut a branch or leave it, let it  rest until next year. The tree’s not going anywhere, after all, and if the branch needs to be removed, one more year will make it that more obvious. Pruning is not a a precise art. There comes a point, however, when you need to lay down your weapons and just walk away.

Perhaps you’ll never be a master gardener, a grandmaster at chess, a master chef or even a master of ceremonies. But when it comes to that fruit tree of yours, you can certainly show it who’s the master of the place.

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