Winter is an excellent time to plant fruit trees, with February being an ideal time to train and prune any existing tree fruits in the landscape, such as apple, pear, peach and plum. In fact, training and pruning have such a long list of benefits, they are home fruit management activities that you don’t want to skip!
Ultimately, tree fruits that are properly trained and pruned perform better in the home garden because this process allows them to bear larger yields with higher quality. They also tend to suffer from less damage and disease as the trees age. Despite the need to begin training newly planted tree fruits right away, as well as annually prune existing fruit trees, many fruit-growing homeowners forego these important management tasks.
While both training and pruning contribute to the development of strong tree infrastructure, these practices differ in how that task is accomplished. Before we are able to maintain tree form and structure, we need to develop the tree’s framework, which is where training comes into play. Training directs tree growth in a way that will lead to the development a desirable tree framework.
Examples of how training can be achieved includes spreading limbs, tying the plant to a trellis, and/or using a rootstock for growth control. Training occurs throughout the year, but generally begins at tree planting. Improperly trained fruit trees are often characterized as having narrow, upright branch angles, which can result in serious limb breakage under a heavy fruit load. This type of damage can significantly reduce the tree’s productivity and overall lifespan.
Proper tree training promotes proper tree structure and opens up the tree’s canopy to maximize light penetration, as light is essential for flower bud development, fruit set, and quality. The open canopy allows air to move through the tree, which drys the foliage and thereby minimizes the spread of disease. An open canopy will also enable better spray coverage. Lastly, a well-shaped fruit tree is aesthetically pleasing, whether as a specimen tree in a landscaped yard or backyard orchard.
Pruning, on the other hand, involves the actual removal of a portion of the plant, with the purpose being to balance the plant between fruit quality and structure. When developing proper tree structure, directing tree growth through training is more desirable than correcting it with pruning; however, some level of pruning is always needed. Additionally, aside from dormant season pruning, some degree of pruning may also take place in the summer.
When growth is removed from a tree, the plant will have a physiological response to the loss of that tissue. That response varies depending on the time of year in which the growth is removed. Thus, while the task of pruning is important and should not be ignored, there is a method in deciding which growth should be removed and when.
Generally, fruit trees are either pruned during the dormant season or summer months. Dormant pruning is an invigorating process, whereas summer pruning slows down growth by eliminating an energy-producing portion of the tree. The bulk of pruning is most commonly done during the winter months when trees are dormant.
During the fall, a fruit tree will translocate carbohydrates (energy) from its leaves back into its trunk and root system to support the canopy when it leafs out again the following spring. Thus, if a portion of the tree’s canopy is removed while the tree is dormant, the tree’s energy reserve will remain unchanged. Once spring arrives, a dormant-pruned tree will have fewer growing points to allocate stored energy reserves, so the plant physiologically responds by producing many vigorous, vegetative shoots.
Since dormant season pruning promotes an invigorating plant response, it is important to understand that if too much growth is removed during dormant pruning, the result will be excessive vegetative vigor. This strong, vegetative response uses much of the tree’s energy reserves that it had stored the previous fall, leaving little for fruit growth and development later in the year. To avoid entering into a situation where you end up with excessive vegetative growth and little to not fruit, it is best to limit dormant season pruning to cuts that remove dead, diseased or damaged wood. You may also remove any growth that will compromise the desired tree form.
As mentioned above, summer pruning is used to slow plant growth and allow more light penetration into the canopy without the invigorating effect of dormant pruning. Generally, summer pruning can be done once vegetative growth is several inches long (about 6-12 inches). For most purposes, summer pruning should be limited to removing the upright and vigorous current season’s growth, such as water sprouts, and only thinning cuts should be used. To minimize the potential for winter injury, summer pruning should not be done after the end of July.
Dormant season pruning should be completed as late in the winter as possible to avoid winter injury. If you have a lot of different tree fruits, a good rule to follow is to prune the latest blooming trees first, such as apples, and the earliest blooming, such as peaches, last. Another factor is the tree’s age. When pruning a particular fruit type, such as apple, prune the oldest trees first, as younger trees are more likely to undergo winter injury from early pruning.
For tree fruits to thrive in your home orchard, they require care and timely maintenance just like those in commercial orchards. When it comes down to it, I think some main reasons why fruit trees are not properly trained and pruned is that folks simply either do not realize their importance, or they are afraid that they may irremovably harm their trees.
While training and pruning may be daunting tasks for those with minimal experience, I encourage you to reach out with your questions, as without training and pruning, your trees will not develop the proper shape and form needed for yielding high-quality fruit. These processes also allow the tree to fruit much sooner and live significantly longer.