|Pear harvest, 2014. Not to scale!|
Pruning has a reputation for being scary, right? It makes new gardeners nervous because of the very real possibility that a tree or shrub can be pruned into non-fruiting, non-flowering or, worst of all, non-existence. I love a bit of pruning, everything looks tidier afterwards but I have to remember that I'm no expert and have a tendency to be a tad over-enthusiastic with the snippers. As such, I'm always open to any tips which will increase my knowledge (and therefore confidence) in how to do this job properly to benefit the plant, especially where my fruit trees are concerned.
My pear trees have been on my mind because so far in their short lives (six years), they've yet to bear fruit. They're Conference pears and although they're self-fertile, I have two of them for better pollination. Last year there was lots of blossom, lots of bees, lots of teeny tiny fruit and then the slow realisation that they'd all fallen off. I did find a solitary two inch long fruit that had fallen from the tree in high winds midsummer but that was it for 2014.
The pear trees in the veg patch garden were one year old bare root whips on a 'semi-dwarfing' Quince C rootstock when we planted them in December 2009. I knew very little about pruning and believed that the rootstock would limit the trees to what I then thought was an acceptable 3 metres tall (around 10 feet). I also thought they were supposed to fruit within 3 to 4 years. Well, time has proved me wrong.
|Fruit trees in March 2014 - plums nearest, then apples, then pears.|
The height of the trees now makes me think that we've planted them too close together, fitting 8 fruit trees into a 35 ft long border. The intention had been to plant 4 of each variety (pear, plum, apple, cherry) in the border with a matching border on the other side of the garden. Biting winds and a lack of time changed our plans and all 8 went in together. Last summer I looked at the dense canopy of the plum and pear trees (no fruit on either) and had recurring thoughts about chopping down one of each tree to open things up.
Luckily a Plan B has emerged in the shape of a few videos and book recently reviewed on Emma Cooper's blog - Grow a Little Fruit Tree by Ann Ralph. I immediately bought a copy and read it within the next couple of days. I've also watched You Tube videos (links below) by Paul Gautschi (reknowned for being a master arborist in his Back to Eden garden in the USA) and Bill Merrill, a Californian edible landscape gardener. All these people believe in keeping their trees to a manageable height (no more than six feet) for ease of pruning and fruit picking. Apple branches are pruned to grow outward, so that no branch shadows another, or down because horizontal branches crop more heavily. Pear centres are opened up - as Bill Merrill says "So the little birdies can fly through the middle" (possibly where I've been going wrong) and they've found that their trees still give a good crop but without having to persuade neighbours to take the excess after making industrial quantities of preserves.
|Braeburn apples last summer. This is a spur bearing tree with the apples hanging from near horizontal branches.|
Pruning will promote spur growth.
The book's author, Ann Ralph, believes pruning should be done twice a year - around the winter solstice for growth and the summer solstice for shaping. The theory goes that in late winter the tree is ready to break dormancy with the energy going up the trunk and into the limbs. By late summer the energy is directed downwards, back into the roots, as the tree prepares for winter dormancy again. Winter pruning stimulates growth, pushing the tree's energy out into the remaining limbs. Summer pruning does not have this effect and is done to shape the tree aesthetically and to manage fruit production.
It all sounds so plausible and logical. Also, there are lines in her book which really resonate with me:
Fruit tree pruning […] is less of a science and more of a conversation. You prune, the tree answers, you prune again.We're not talking chit-chat here but cause and effect. This reminds me of the Chelsea Chop, which is timed to promote vigorous and healthy growth for the flower show, and deadheading in our own gardens to prolong flowering. All plants will respond to the attention that we give them.
On the subject of rootstocks (remember my pear trees are on semi-dwarfing rootstocks), Ann writes:
Semidwarf means only "smaller than standard". If a full-size tree is thirty feet tall, then a semidwarf might grow to be as high as twenty-five feet.Yikes. This is a comment well-aimed at urban and small garden growers. Big trees will block the light; smaller trees are more suited to a domestic garden. And the smaller the tree, the more can be fitted into the garden, increasing the varieties that can be grown by an individual. There's also the more practical aspect of reaching the fruit on a tall tree. I'm 5'2" - how am I going to pick fruit at the top of a 15 foot tree? I won't. It will fall to the ground and rot.
There's a little voice in my head reminding me of air-borne diseases and other reasons why we're advised to prune when we do (stone fruit in summer, pomes in winter) but I can't help being swayed by these arguments. I'm going to give it a go. In fact, I started on my apple trees last weekend, taking a more considered approach than before. (Winter pruning lets you see the shape of the tree clearly.) The pears are next, an altogether more daunting prospect given their height. The proof will be in the pudding - hopefully, pear pie and apple crumble! - this coming summer. (Or maybe next.)
|Apple trees before pruning: leaning together, tangled branches.|
|And after pruning: One main leader stem and strong branches not touching.|
And any mistakes that I may make can be corrected in the next prune and will only help to improve my experience. The title of this post is a quote taken from the book; it will be true whatever the outcome.
You Tube: Worst case and best case pear tree pruning by Bill Merrill (GreenGardenGuy)
You Tube: How to prune apple trees by Paul Gautschi (Back to Eden)
PS. I'm sending my thanks to Erin at Organic Gardening in Sidney (Canada) for sharing the Back to Eden pruning video on her blog which is where I first saw it some time back. Thank you, Erin!