by Brad Cochran, WVSU Extension Agent
For those of us with fruit trees like apples, peaches, plums, cherries, pears and others, March can seemingly be the most labor intensive month of the year. However, March is also the most important month of the year when it comes to the fruit production that will occur on your trees during the coming growing season. This time of year, when the cabin fever is at a level you just can’t stand, is the time to get outside and prune your fruit trees to encourage new growth and also to help our fruit grow larger and become much better tasting. Don’t worry… pruning isn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds and this guide can help you feel more comfortable with it in just a few short minutes.
Tips for better fruit tree pruning
- First, remove any limbs or branches that are broken, dead, dying or showing signs of disease or insect damage from the previous year. These branches will not be producing quality fruit if they are still living, and generally will be a great place for insects and diseases to enter the tree and wreak havoc, potentially killing the entire tree. Simply take your hand pruners or loppers and cut the branches out at a minimum to the next major fork in the branch. If you are removing insect or disease infested branches then it is recommended to remove at least an additional 6”, but to be safe you should remove more than that. Sometimes this requires the removal of the entire limb all the way back to the main trunk. If this is the case then you want to prune using the following removal method, which includes 3 different cuts with a handsaw.
This cutting method will allow you to prune the limb without damaging the rest of the tree.
- Next, remove branches that are crossing others, those that are too vertical or those that are too horizontal. When branches cross and touch other branches the wind can cause the branches to rub against each other and remove the bark creating a place for insects and disease to enter the tree. In this case, just choose one branch and remove the other. Typically, you want to choose the thickest, strongest branch that is near at 45 degree angle, but all things being equal just choose one and remove the other. If branches are too vertical (i.e. straight up and down) these branches are called watersprouts and should be removed. These branches will only be vegetative and will not produce fruit. If branches are horizontal or even going downward then they should be removed as well for the same reasons that they will not produce fruit and if they do it is likely that the weight of the fruit will break the branches off.
- Finally, remove branches that are growing inward toward the middle of the tree. The number 1 goal of pruning is to keep the tree healthy and productive. To help do this, we need to be sure that there is plenty of airflow getting into the middle of the tree to help dry off the leaves and branches to reduce the likelihood of mildews, blights and other diseases that can harbor in water. By keeping the middle of the tree as open as possible we can decrease the likelihood of these issues arising during the season.
These three steps are a great start to getting your trees pruned in a proper manner that will keep the tree strong and productive in the growing season. If you have an older tree that hasn’t been pruned in many years, then it is recommended to do these same steps but over the course of about 3–4 years to avoid reverting the tree into a juvenile state creating lots of vertical growth and poor looking trees.
If you’re in the Charleston, W.Va., area on March 16, consider attending our Fruit Tree Pruning Workshop on campus. Details, including registration information, can be found here.