Pruning strikes fear into many gardeners’ hearts – but can make such a difference to your fruit trees’ productivity, it’s silly not to try.
People worry about pruning as if it’s the only chance they’ll ever get! But every year trees put on new growth, giving you another go. Taking note of how your trees react to pruning will give you the best education. Keep these four goals in mind to be sure of a great job:
• Create a strong, balanced shape that can cope with heavy winds and abundant crops without breaking.
• Create a tree that’s easy to manage – one you can pick, spray, prune and bird net at ground level.
• Create an open shape so light can penetrate to ripen fruit, breezes can flow through, and birds and bees can get in to pollinate.
• Remove older and diseased wood to stimulate new growth – oh, to be a fruit tree!
The right tools for the job
1 Invest in quality tools
Good cuts start with the right tools. Strong tools last a lifetime, have replacement parts and can be sharpened. They don’t bruise the wood and are easy to use. My pruning kit contains a robust pruning saw (fold-away ones can collapse at crucial moments), strong loppers and secateurs that sharpen well and fit in my hand.
2 Keep your tools clean and sharp
I take my loppers and saw to get sharpened at the start of pruning season – it’s $20 well spent. I keep a diamond sharpener in my secateurs pouch and tickle the blade up between trees. I also use a vinegar-soaked rag to wipe my blades after each tree so as not to spread disease.
3 Make a good cut
A good cut has clean edges, not raggedy ones that can let in disease, and it redirects the tree in the direction you want it to grow. A good cut also finishes at a point of growth. This means cutting back to a bud or leaf (angle your cut slightly away from the bud so the rain runs off) or back to a branch or the trunk (leave a slight collar to allow for shrinkage). If you have to force your tool to make a cut, it’s either too small for the job, or it’s blunt. Don’t squash your fruitful wood!
4 Choose your shape
Before you start cutting, stand back and take a look at your tree. If it’s old and unpruned you need to work with the shape it has grown in; if it’s brand new you can choose for it.
5 Choose a single leader or a vase
A single leader has a central leader, or trunk, with three scaffolds of branches radiating out. Each scaffold should be 30cm apart (for small rootstocks) to 50cm apart (for larger ones). The lowest scaffold is the longest and flattest, and the top one the shortest. This creates a pyramid shape, which provides a strong framework for fruit and plenty of light for ripening. This shape is suited to apples and pears.
A vase shape involves four or five well spread branches coming off the trunk about 1 metre off the ground. The centre needs to be wide open for light penetration. Vase-shaped trees are ideal for stone fruit. Visualise the open shape you want to create and mentally subtract the branches you need to remove. If you’re feeling nervous, ask for a second opinion, try marking branches for removal with rags, or prune trees over a few days. Remember that you can always take a break and return later with a fresh eye.
6 Start with your framework
Make big cuts first. If your tree is less than two years old you’ll be using secateurs. No matter what shape you’re creating, begin by removing damaged, dead and diseased branches. Take out any rubbing or crossing branches and any growing at 20 degrees or less to the trunk – these break easily and are best removed young.
7 For a single leader
Your leader needs to be at least 30cm higher than any other branches. Remove any scaffold branches that are past their best or cluttering up the tree. Help branches grow at a wide angle to the trunk by tying them to a peg in the ground or back to the trunk itself. The idea is to prevent them growing upwards instead of laterally. Old stockings make ideal ties!
8 For a vase-shaped tree
Clear out the centre of the tree so that light can reach all fruit. Tidy up the trunk below the main branches as fruit won’t ripen in the shade. Leave weaker branches unpruned and reduce longer ones to match, and remove wood growing towards the centre of the tree.
9 Fine tuning
Downsize to secateurs once your framework is sorted. If you’re restoring an old tree and have removed a lot of wood already, you may decide to stop at this point. Don’t remove more than a third of the tree. I stack my prunings so I can keep track of how much I’ve cut off.
10 Hold the future fruiting wood of your tree foremost in mind
Once your trees reach five years old they should have a balance of peak fruiting wood, older wood soon to be past its best and new growth preparing to replace the older wood. This ensures fruitful harvests for years to come. Be generous in leaving pencil-thin lateral growth which will bear fruit in the future.
11 Prune out any bare or unproductive wood
Long straggly branches should be trimmed to end with a downward-facing bud. This encourages growth closer to the trunk to create a strong tree shape.
Upright shoots need to be reduced or removed – they’re less productive and clutter up the tree. If you have a lot of these shoots, cut out every third one and trim the rest back to end with a low, outward-facing bud. If you remove them all, your tree will respond with three times as many next year! Fill gaps by tying a spare upright shoot to grow into the empty space.
12 Encourage fruitful wood
Branches fruit best when nearly horizontal. You’ll see clusters of buds, or fruit spurs, along them. Fruit buds are fat and round, while leaf buds are shield-shaped. Pears, apples, apricots and plums need their fruit spurs refreshed from the age of about four. Trim withered buds and shorten long, gangly spurs.
Peaches and nectarines fruit on wood grown in the previous season, which is why if left unpruned, the fruit grows higher and higher up the tree, with loads of empty unproductive wood beneath. Prune the old, unproductive wood in early spring. Shorten new wood, which is a pretty red colour, by about a third to keep it close to the trunk.
Leave lots of fat fruit buds. Spring pruning also allows you to control height – peaches are vigorous trees!
13 Observation is key
Every variety responds differently. Take note of where your trees carry their fruit and how they grow – this will help you understand your fruit tree and make good choices when you prune.
14 Prune by season
Winter pruning encourages replacement of old wood, so is handy for major structural work. It provokes a strong growth response – useful for invigorating a poorly tree. Summer pruning has a weaker growth response, so it’s ideal for taming vigorous trees. Trim secateur-sized wood to improve light distribution, and always prune stonefruit in summer to avoid the risk of silver leaf.