Tidying up your trees: Tips for pruning fruit trees

By Sandra Frangiadakis,

KFPC Food Action Lead

Fruit trees are a great addition to the urban landscape. As well as a bounty of delicious fruit, they can provide greenery, shade, beautiful spring blossoms, and a place for kids to climb and hang out. With regular care and attention, they can remain attractive and productive for many years. Left on their own, however, they can sometimes get out of control and turn into gnarly, overgrown bushes. The many volunteers with the Gleaning Abundance Program can attest to the value of a well-pruned tree. We sometimes have to battle through thickets of broken, dead, and pokey branches to get to the fruit, and have to resort on occasion, to cutting our way through. We also get the pleasure of harvesting from some of our city’s oldest and stateliest fruit trees and have a great appreciation for those well-cared-for specimens.

The key to keeping fruit trees producing fruit and looking great is annual pruning. Late winter is the ideal time for pruning fruit trees -- they are dormant and free of foliage, so you can easily see what you’re doing. A lot of folks like to wait until the weather warms up a bit to make the task more enjoyable, which is fine, as long as the sap hasn’t started running and the buds haven’t started to open. Pruning later in the spring should be limited to the 3 D’s (dead, damaged, or diseased wood).

To the novice, pruning a fruit tree may seem a bit daunting, but there are plenty of good books or online resources out there to get you started (don’t get sucked into spending your whole pruning session in front of the computer screen, though!). You can find a good basic how-to from modernfarmer.com.

The first step is to make sure you have the right tools for the job. You’ll need a sturdy ladder (unless your trees are very small), a good set of pruning clippers (secateurs) for small branches, and a tree saw for anything over about ½ an inch. It’s important to clean your tools before you start, and keep them disinfected by spraying or wiping the blades with a bleach or alcohol solution if you’re moving from one tree to another (I have firsthand experience with this -- having inadvertently transferred peach leaf curl to my backyard after pruning someone else’s infected tree).

With tree pruning, how you cut is just as important as what you cut. Cut too close to the trunk and the tree won’t be able to heal over the cut. Cut too far out and you leave an unsightly stub which is prone to rot and disease. Aim for the magic spot called the branch-ridge collar. For large branches, use the 3-step method shown in the diagram to prevent the falling branch from ripping off the bark underneath.

Pruning is both an art and a science, and different people will have different opinions on what to cut. Besides the 3 D’s mentioned above, you’ll want to get rid of any suckers coming from the base of the trunk and some (but not all) of the water sprouts -- thin, straight, upright branches that rarely produce fruit. Then it’s a matter of shaping. With fruit trees, you normally want to aim for an open canopy that lets in light and air. Notice branches growing downwards, towards the center, or crossing others, and decide which ones need to go to achieve that openness. Think about which branches might be a hazard (growing over a sidewalk or interfering with lawn-mowing). Stand back every now and then to look at the whole tree and evaluate your work. You should have a reason for each cut you make and definitely don’t want to cut more than necessary.

To learn more about how to prune your fruit trees and get some hands-on practice with an expert, join us March 10, from 1 to 3:30 p.m., for a fruit-tree pruning workshop with Greg Houghton, local certified arborist and pruning fanatic. To register or get more details, see KFPC’s website or Eventbrite.

For more information about the Kamloops Food Policy Council, visit our website kamloopsfoodpolicy council.com or call 250-851-6111.

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