Fruit Tree Pruning and Maintenance

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

  1. 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.FruitTreePruning

    This cutting method will allow you to prune the limb without damaging the rest of the tree.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Happy pruning!

Gardening Season Extension Techniques

by John Bombardiere, Extension Agent

March is perhaps the most unpredictable weather month of the year. Temperatures can be near 70 degrees one day and in the 30s the next, so it’s hard to believe any plants outside of a greenhouse could still be growing given the fluctuating climate. The kale and chard in our raised beds gave up in January and February after hanging on throughout a mild early winter, and we have several months to wait before we can plant peppers and tomatoes in the garden again. But there are a few places in the state that still are producing lettuce and greens. High tunnels have been installed on hundreds of West Virginia farms over the past few years. These structures consist of a metal frame, wooden baseboards and plastic covering. They can keep frost off plants in the fall and early spring, and in combination with row covers, can keep lettuce and greens alive and well during even the coldest nights.

For early spring planting outdoors, a few options exist. For frost-sensitive plants, row covers can be used to get fruiting vegetable transplants off to an early start without suffering the consequences of an unexpected frost. These are often called “floating” row covers because they can lay over the plants without harming the leaves like plastic covering will do. For individual rows, hoops made of wire can support the covers. This is called a low tunnel. This saves material and allows for better access to and monitoring of plants. Brands of row covers include AgriBon and Remay. These can be ordered from seed and garden suppliers. Locally, feed and hardware stores sell tobacco cloth that serves the same purpose.

Soil temperature is important for early seed starts outdoors. In order to start seeds in late April and early May, clear plastic mulches are used. The clear mulches transmit solar radiation into the seedbed, warming the soil to proper temperature to allow seed germination. This is a common practice for early direct seeded crops such as green beans and sweet corn.

For more information about high tunnels, ground cover and plastic mulches see the following links:

Finally, always remember to check your city’s ordinances pertaining to the erection of such structures before beginning construction.

Extending Your Growing Season

by Brad Cochran, CARD Extension Agent,

Have you ever dreamed of a big, juicy tomato in May or June? Or maybe a fresh salad with lettuce, spinach, carrots and radish during Thanksgiving or Christmas? Perhaps you sell produce at a local farmers market and would like to have products to sell earlier and later into the market season? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then taking advantage of growing season extension practices may be right for you. Generally speaking, season extension can be defined as anything that allows a crop to be grown beyond its normal outdoor growing season. Some common examples of season extension are greenhouses and high tunnels, but are there other options? You bet!

The biggest problems and obstacles with greenhouses and high tunnels are the cost of construction (though the Natural Resources Conservation Service does have a cost-share program to assist in purchasing high tunnels) and the hefty footprint they leave on your property. For small-scale growers in particular, the cost of these structures may be too much to even consider season extension as an option. However, there are a couple different options that are available to you at a much lower cost and with a very small footprint. These options are low tunnels and cold frames that allow for season extension.

Low tunnels are essentially a miniature version of high tunnels that can be attached directly to raised beds or placed in the ground for traditional growing. The low tunnels are covered with greenhouse-grade plastic that heats up the sunlight and keeps the soil and plants warmer than they would be if left exposed to the elements. The frame of the low tunnel can be constructed from a number of materials, but the most common are metal conduit, bent and shaped to fit the site where it will be placed, or PVC pipe bent to fit the location of use. The metal conduit will be much sturdier against the elements but more expensive than PVC.

Cold frames are structures that have a hinged lid on top to allow you, as the grower, to keep it sealed shut or be open for increased airflow. They can be made from a variety of materials ranging from PVC, wood or metal frames and covered with greenhouse grade plastic or twin-wall polycarbonate greenhouse material, or they can be constructed using recycled home windows or other recycled materials. Cold frame kits can also be purchased from many online retailers and typically range in price from $80–$250. Homemade cold frames can also be built for less than $20 using recycled materials. They can be standalone structures placed directly on the ground or mounted to raised beds. Designs and growing information for cold frames can be found in The Cold Frame Handbook by Derek Weiss.

So why is season extension so important? Because it allows for additional weeks of growing fresh, local produce available for family consumption or for sale in local markets or restaurants. Low tunnels and cold frames are great at extending your cool season harvest of lettuces and greens (collards, mustard, turnip, etc.), radishes, carrots and other vegetables well into the holiday season. Low tunnels and cold frames are also great ways to get a head start on the growing season in the spring. They enable you to directly plant cool season crops earlier in the year and also create a place to “harden off” plants started from seeds, like tomatoes, peppers and others. Cold frames in particular are great devices to have in place for the hardening-off process, in which you bring seeds started indoors under grow lights outdoors to get the plants adjusted to cooler temperatures. Cold frames are places where plants are almost weaned away from high temperatures indoors, but can still be protected from the elements that can come with a late frost up until mid-May.

Keep those plants protected in low tunnels or cold frames, get your seedlings hardened off earlier, and extend your growing season and your overall production starting now. Low tunnels and cold frames are easy to construct and relatively inexpensive for all of the wonderful things they can do for your garden production. Happy growing!

Urban Gardening Made Easy

Written by Melissa Stewart, Assistant Program Director, Community & Agricultural Resource Development,

Many consumers in the Charleston area remain skeptical of the safety of the food that lines the supermarket shelves and the water that comes from the tap. Therefore, the time is right to take steps toward empowering residents of our state to become more self-reliant. Something as simple as growing your own food can be liberating. Knowing exactly where your food comes from and how it has been handled can help to ease your mind, especially when hearing the produce recalls that appear in the media all too often.

Container gardening can provide the flexibility needed to plant exactly what you want, where you want, as long as sunlight is sufficient in your chosen area. Depending upon your setup, you can easily plant a pot of tomatoes directly off of the kitchen stoop. And if space allows, your container gardening setup can continually expand. Simply add a whole new container to the mix and keep right on producing.

So, what should you consider planting in containers this year now that the winter thaw has finally started happening? The possibilities are endless. Over the past couple of years, local lawn and garden retailers have begun to take notice of the “urban gardening” movement. Knowing that most people in urban areas are limited on space, retailers have started to offer container crop varieties such as cherry and mid-sized tomatoes, as well as cucumbers and peppers. If your space and time are limiting factors to your gardening, these plants are perfect to help you transition into a more compact way of growing while still reaping all the benefits of a traditional garden.

Do you have children? Containers are very kid-friendly. One idea is to work with the kids to develop themed container gardens. A salad garden or a pizza garden can be planted and then harvested to prepare a meal, or the theme could correlate back to a favorite children’s book. The sky is the limit. Kids become engaged and begin to take ownership of taking care of the plants. A container is the perfect way for a child to begin to learn about basic plant needs such as water and sunlight.

Finally, container gardens work well for persons of varying abilities. If gardening in the ground is no longer an option and the construction of raised beds is too costly, container gardens may be a wonderful alternative. These gardens can be placed at any height to reduce the amount of stooping or bending required for care or harvest. Containers rarely need to be weeded, especially when they are placed on a concrete or paved surface where weeds are far away. If on a solid surface, they can be placed on casters so they are easy to move around, making them even simpler to access for harvesting.

To read the full article, click here.