I’ve always thought that there was something mildly esoteric and Zen about the art of pruning trees and shrubs. This attitude is perhaps a reflection of my having grown up watching Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid waxing poetic about bonsai trees. Or it might have something to do with the fact that I’ve never been very good at pruning. (I’m reminded of the time I hacked away at an ailing rosebush and it ended up looking like an amputation victim gone awry.)
Once again, Carla Emery comes to the rescue, this time with some basic do’s and don’t’s on pruning that even the lowly lay-gardener like myself can apply to keep shrubs and trees flourishing year after year. Give them a try and your garden will thank you with generous gifts of fruits, flowers, and foliage. And who knows, you might even discover your inner Karate master along the way.
Potentially unfamiliar terms are explained in the mini-glossary below.
1. First, and always, take out all of the dead wood.
2. Take out the worst crossing, rubbing branches.
3. Take out the worst wrong-way branches. These are the ones that start on one side of the tree, head the wrong way through the center, and come out on the other side.
4. If you have a grafted tree, carefully prune off any suckers* growing up from the roots or out from around the base of the main stem below the graft line.
5. Take out some of the suckers and watersprouts.** Leave some alone (don’t cut off the tips), since they will flower and fruit and be pulled over and produce more spurs later. Head back some suckers to thicken them up into second-story branches. Try to head back to another upright side branch and not to a horizontal branch that would sucker back madly. Thinning back some of the branches, especially toward the top (even a few big branches) increases light penetration and lowers your tree. This helps ripen the fruit lower down. It increases air circulation, too, which is important in order to discourage the numerous bacterial and fungal diseases that spoil the fruit.
6. The conventional wisdom for regular pruning is to remove weak crotches.*** Both horizontal connections and very narrow crotches may be vulnerable. The preferred connection is wider than a 45-degree angle, but less than a 90-degree one.
7. But to encourage more fruiting on your apples and pears, prune for more horizontal branches. Horizontal branches bear more fruit than vertical branches. You can head back laterals to force more spurs to form.
8. Mature fruit and nut trees can be pruned to let more light into the tree. That will make for larger, better harvests.
Warning: Too much pruning can weaken your fruit tree enough to result in sickness. Also, for home fruit tree pruning, don’t use hedge clippers or a chain saw. Hedge clippers are intended only for very fine twigs, and chain saws produce too rough a cut.
* Suckers are branches that grow from the underground or bottom trunk part of a grafted tree.
** Also sometimes called suckers, watersprouts grow straight up from higher portions of the tree.
*** A crotch is where a branch connects with the central leader. If a branch is very upright, making a narrow angle between it and the trunk (less than 40 degrees), it’s called a “weak” or “bad” crotch.