Pruning Pruning Pruning


New Year’s into April we do ‘dormant pruning.’ We’re not altogether dormant but the trees are. So most of us working here spend hundreds of hours — pruning. (This photo omits 5 or 6 other people who also prune here through any given winter.)

Pruning matters because fruit trees are not appliances. They don’t set out to do what people want. Like most life forms, fruit trees are designed to reproduce: they make seeds, cover them in nutrients that attract birds and animals, and fulfill their mission when a seed passes through a creature and plants itself. Humans, pickier than wildlife, want trees to produce fewer, larger, sweeter, tastier, and prettier fruit than they would if left alone.

So pruners cut to let sunshine reach the fruit, to keep trees small enough for easy picking, and/or to open spaces for ladders to reach the tops. They take off old branches and select their successors. Well-pruned trees have strong wide-angled limbs to hold heavy crops without breaking. They keep to their spaces instead of entangling the neighbors. And, pruning helps persuade most apple varieties to crop well every year. On their own they would “go biennial,” back and forth between big crop years and restful years of nothing much. Pruning helps domesticate fruit trees the way training helps domesticate animals. Like other kinds of cultivation, orchard pruning starts early, when little branchless trees called ‘whips’ first go into the ground.

We often get questions about pruning fruit trees. For help with your home fruit trees, see Stella Otto’s ‘The Backyard Orchardist’. If you have deeper interest, Steve says the best authority on cutting any woody plant is Alex Shigo, tree physiologist at the University of New Hampshire, author of many books and articles. (This is not home-state vanity, the guy is The Guy all over the world).

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