Here it is, late January already. If we can get a chance between rainy days this is an excellent time to take care of dormant season fruit tree pruning.
There are endless variations of pruning styles depending on personal needs, available space and tree variety. To simplify the matter, here is a primer to cover the essentials.
A guiding motto about pruning is: Make no wound without a reason!
For fruit trees, the reasons include: maintaining aesthetic appeal, controlling tree size, managing pests and diseases, allowing for light and air circulation in the canopy, preventing failure of overloaded branches, improving fruit quality, and generating fruiting stems.
Those are the reasons. Here are some essential pruning practices for established and mature fruit trees:
1. Prune deciduous fruit trees every year during the dormant season but avoid rainy-weather pruning of disease-prone trees like apricot and cherry. Follow up with light pruning in summer.
2. Maintain appropriate overall tree size by removing or shortening long, vigorous outer and upper shoots while retaining plenty of flowering/fruiting stems in the lower and inner canopy.
3. Remove all dead, dying and broken stems and leftover fruit.
4. Do not over-thin. It leads to sun injury on branch surfaces that face the afternoon sun.
5. Maintain space between adjacent stems in the outer canopy, roughly equal to the span of your open hand.
6. Prune to remove suckers — sprouts from the roots and the base of the trunk.
7. When pruning to shorten or remove a branch, prune back to a strong lateral branch at least 1/3 the diameter of the portion being removed. Do not leave stubs and do not make “flush” cuts.
8. When pruning to shorten a small diameter branch back to a bud, prune to a bud that is aimed in the direction you want the new shoot to grow.
9. Prune for clearance aboveground as needed. Low branches are convenient for fruit picking, as long as they don’t interfere with access.
10. Prune to shorten branches that look like they might sag or fail when loaded with fruit.
11. Use a combination of thinning cuts to remove crowded and crossing or rubbing branches, and heading cuts to shorten long shoots.
12. Know the location of the fruiting buds. This depends on the type of tree: Apples and pears blossom and fruit on long-lived spurs, all along the branches. Peaches and nectarines blossom and fruit where you see fat, fuzzy buds on 1-year-old shoots.
After pruning, do not bother with asphalt compound wound dressings. The branch collar is still the best protection at a pruning wound. For protection from sun injury, paint bark surfaces that are exposed to direct afternoon sunlight using white water-base paint.
For old, neglected trees consider returning them to good vitality and production with several years of consistent pruning and care.
Monitor each year and modify pruning in accordance with the condition of the trees.
Good sanitation pruning, cleanup and monitoring are essential. Beyond that, consider a simple, minimal spray schedule for the most common problems using relatively nontoxic spray materials:
1. A 2 percent solution of dormant oil is recommended by the Encyclopedia of Natural Insect and Disease Control, to be applied at the delayed dormant stage, when buds are beginning to swell, for general control of scales, mites and aphids. In the garden center, check labels of spray oils.
2. For control of leaf curl in peaches and nectarines, UC IPM Online recommends a “fixed copper” spray (e.g., Monterey Liqui-Cop) with a spreader sticker in fall and again when the flower buds begin to swell in late winter.
There is an endless array of pests and diseases and information on fruit tree care. As needed, seek help at UC IPM online (ipm.ucdavis.edu) or visit the local UC Cooperative Extension office.
Keep a close eye on your fruit trees. Give them a simple and consistent program of care and you will be rewarded with plentiful fresh fruit.