Sunday, February 27, 2011

Late Winter Pruning

I appreciate the responses I've gotten so far about your favorite can openers. Keep them coming! It seems like everybody has a different favorite.

Before Hubby Dear and I even closed on the property I call the Harried Homemaker Acres, we started planning an orchard. It was going to be a large orchard because we were going to own five whole acres, which seemed like a lot to us at the time. Now, of course, I wish we had more like 20 acres. We got a bunch of catalogs and selected all the different kinds of fruit and nut trees that we were going to plant. Of course we were going to have at least two trees of every species that will grow in our climate! We made a scale drawing of our acreage and planned the location for each tree, allowing for ideal cross-pollination, protection from frost, and shelter from winds.

The reality? Nearly four years later, we have a grand total of one fruit tree and a handful of berry bushes. Our harvests have been scant to none, and it is mostly our own fault.

Granted, I have popped out a couple more babies and Hubby Dear's work schedule is more hectic than either one of us would have imagined four years ago. The major problem, however, is that we have been guilty of the crime of not-so-benign neglect when it comes to garden matters.

We're turning over a new leaf in 2011 and today we did a very important garden chore - pruning.

Why do you prune fruit trees?

According to the North Carolina Extension Service:
  1. If you shape your tree to develop a strong structure, it will prevent breakage due to wind or a heavy fruit crop.
  2. You'll remove dead, diseased, or otherwise poor quality growth, improving the overall health of your tree.
  3. You can shape the tree to insure that light can get to the center of the tree. More light = more fruit!
  4. All this pruning will keep air flow moving throughout the tree, discouraging diseases that thrive in moist conditions.
In other words, pruning will give you better quality of fruit and even cause your tree to bear earlier and live longer. As long as you do not remove more than 1/2 of the tree's branches in one year, you really cannot prune too much.

What tools do you need to prune?

Depending on the size of the tree you're pruning you may need any or all of the following:
  • Secateurs- Hand-held, scissor-like pruners for small branches and twigs
  • Loppers - For thicker branches, say 1/4 to 1/2" diameter
  • Pruning Saw - For the thickest branches
  • A ladder if your tree is tall.
Most pruning should take place in late winter or early spring while the tree is still dormant, which is why Hubby Dear were working outside while it looked like this:

Fog enveloping the hills

Our first victim subject was our dwarf Montmorency sour cherry tree. We got it as a freebie when we ordered our blackberries and raspberries back in 2007. Honestly, I never expected it to live. We did pretty much everything wrong when we planted it and I thought the combination of our own ineptitude and clay soil would do it in. Despite the odds, it has survived.

"Before" Cherry Tree

Before we began, we read a few of the references we have on hand. I recommend The Backyard Orchardistby Stella Otto as a good starting place if you're new to fruit trees. You should also do an online search for your state's extension service. Ours has a host of PDF files available with information tailored for the varieties that thrive in our state's climate. We've printed off hundreds of pages on crops we grow or will likely grow and I store them behind the "gardening" tab of my preparedness binder.

Our goals in shaping this particular tree was to:
  1. Define a central leader - a central branch from which the other branches grow off. Trees like apple, cherry, plum, pear, and apricot generally are pruned using the central leader method. Others, such as peach, use another method called open center, which is just like it sounds.
  2. Define scaffold branches. These are the smaller branches that grow off the central leader. You want them to be distributed on both sides of the tree and be spaced well apart.
  3. Remove any branches that cross or rub against each other.
  4. Remove anything dead.
Here's the "After":

"After" Cherry tree

Hopefully, the tree will appreciate the TLC and produce a bountiful crop of cherries. Ideally, the angle between the scaffolds and the central leader should be between 60 and 80 degrees. We need to think about using elastic or limb spreaders to achieve this.


Small fruits like raspberries (depending on the variety) and blackberries also benefit from some winter pruning. We currently grow two types of thornless blackberries: Chester, a semi-erect (bushy) variety and Triple Crown, a trailing (requires trellising) variety. All the pruning for trailing blackberries is done after harvest time in late summer/early fall, but we needed to work on the Chesters.

Here's the Chesters "before":

"Before" Blackberries with our square foot garden in the background

We thinned out the extra canes and cut back the lateral growth. Much like the cherry tree, our berries have suffered from neglect and having to compete with weeds.

Here's the "after":

"After" blackberries

If you have fruit in your garden, be better than me and don't wait three or four years to begin to be a good steward. If you're thinking of planting an orchard or berries, keep in mind that it's not all pie and jam. There is a fair bit of maintainence that is required. But think of the rewards!

Hubby Dear and I have made a commitment to make our garden a priority this year. If all goes well, we'll unearth that fabulous orchard plan and get to planting in 2012.


  1. An orchard?!?! Oh my -- how wonderful that will be!

    My DH and I just tried to talk ourselves into doing a garden this year. (And yes, we tried last year, too.) I'm hoping your green-thumb-ness will inspire us to try again :-)

  2. I must confess, this being my first year pruning, I just went at it. I've pruned trees before, but never fruit trees... looks like I didn't do half bad! I struggled with finding a leader on a couple of them. It was really difficult to tell- they seemed to Y out from the nursery pruning on the top.

  3. Nice job on the pruning! I took a Master Gardener course where they taught this and STILL had trouble doing it, but yours look fantastic. (And in the snow, no less! Doubly impressive!) Want to prune mine?

    Thank for linking up to the Barn Hop!