Prune to Perfection

February 10th dawned crisp and clear. Temperatures in the twenties presented a stark contrast to the mild fifties and even sixties experienced in prior weeks. Although the thermal shock was enough to coax folks into remaining indoors, an enthusiastic group met to brave the chill this luminous winter morning.

Folks from Waitsburg, Dayton, and Pomeroy gathered to soak in the wisdom offered by Bill Warren, owner of Warren Orchards in Dayton (established 1996), on proper fruit tree pruning techniques. While tree pruning appears simple on the surface, there are specific dos and don’ts, particularly for fruit trees, that connote the difference between bearing a full, easily harvestable crop, and all other less desirable conditions.

“You don’t prune fruit trees the way you prune ornamental trees.” Bill explained. “Ornamental trees are pruned for beauty…”, which is an entirely different function than fruit production. There are similar fundamental pruning techniques among tree species relative to how cuts are made to shape a tree and reduce damage to surrounding tissue, but the specifics on fruit trees are dependent on a number of factors. Pruning techniques can be applied to promote fruit bearing performance with a basic understanding of how a tree wants to perform naturally. This can generally be identified through a few simple questions.

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  • What type of fruit does the tree produce? Stone fruits such as plums, peaches, and apricots are generally trees pruned to an “open center”, meaning the structure of three grows outward rather than upward, and should be pruned to maintain this form. Conversely, pomaceous fruits like apples and pears typically grow up from the trunk based on a “central leader” and are pruned to maintain this characteristic.
  • Does the tree produce fruit from branch tip buds? Many apple varieties do, and generally on the new growth from the prior season. Pruning at the proper branch locations considering tree structure and limb stability for fruit bearing and harvest is important for long-term production and fruit accessibility.
  • Is the tree a dwarf, semi-dwarf, or regular cultivar? This plays into the overall size and growth rates, and should be considered when pruning. Bill explained that standard root stocks can be vigorous, producing feet of growth in a good year, and should be maintained to approximately 12 feet in height. On the other hand, dwarf varieties generally grow slower and overall, smaller, likely requiring pruning smaller branch sections to maintain appropriate vigor and precocity.

Despite the bite of the bracing morning breeze, attendees were attentive and thoroughly engaged, as many manage a variety of tree species and ages, some of which have considerable age, presenting a history of pruning neglect as an inherited challenge. Some noted furiously as Bill clipped and expounded. Others listened with pointed rapt.

Pruning to a specific structure was a major focus of the morning. Using loppers as a general guideline, Bill demonstrated estimating appropriate branch length and making cuts above buds that face the direction you would like the branch to grow. Tiering was also recommended, keeping lower branches horizontally staggered from above branches to ensure suitable sunlight and spacing around the tree.

Pruning old, unwieldy trees was another hot topic. Bill encouraged heavy pruning over multiple years on old trees like apples that tend to entangle themselves when left to their own devices. When it comes to making cuts, “…keep the [pruner] blade toward the branch, working inward…” Bill explained. This facilitates clean cuts, less likely to damage remaining branches, and reduces the potential for disease to enter at the wound, which presents a third topic folks eagerly quizzed Bill on throughout the demonstration.

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Disease can pose a significant battle as well, and proper pruning can aid in controlling them. Fire blight, a bacterial apple tree disease that infects fruit buds, is an example with substantial interest. Bill explained that if detected, getting ahead of the disease is crucial, and pruning sixteen inches back from diseased tissue is recommended; however, taking the entire branch off at the base is the best practice. Fire blight can move through the tree undetected with devastating results if it reaches the trunk and roots.

The February timing of the class was no coincidence, either. Spring pruning is favored over fall pruning as it reduces the amount of time the tree bears an open wound, vulnerable to infection. Bill recommends pruning just as the buds begin to swell before breaking. The recent, unseasonably warm weather is already prompting bud swell in the trees of the Touchet Valley.

Although many attendees were bundled, gloved, and chilled near to the bone, all left with a revived eagerness to apply the morning’s lessons. While Bill’s classes are not necessarily planned well in advance, or offered each year, you can keep tabs on Warren Orchards on Facebook for opportunities, as well as tips, and other informational posts throughout the year.

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