27 Jan 2015

"Pruners learn by pruning"

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.

Links:
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!


32 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this interesting lesson, Caro!

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    1. Pleased you enjoyed reading it, Endah. Do you prune your trees?

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  2. Must admit that I prune with a little knowledge and a lot of instinct. Reading about it just confuses me.

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    1. I've always followed the mantra of 'Dead, Diseased, Dying' when pruning but hadn't thought about the effect of my actions on the tree. I once went on a local pruning workshop and got even more confused! I only recently found out that stone fruit need summer pruning but then this latest book says that advice is for farmers and backyard gardeners needn't worry! Instinct sounds good to me!

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  3. Your post certainly strikes a chord with me! A few years ago (I forget exactly when) I bought 1 pear, one apple and one plum tree, all grown as Minarettes. The Plum tree produced about 3 plums (over 2 seasons) and then got diseased and died. The Apple produced a decent crop (21 fruits) once and then deteriorated so much that I dug it up last Autumn, so now I just have the Pear, which now fruits biennially. Being a minarette it is easy enough to prune though. Hopefully I will get some fruit this year because last year it went the same way as yours - early blossom but no fruit set. I even had the one tiny fruit just like you, but it never made it to maturity!

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    1. Obviously not a good year for either of us, Mark! Interesting to know about your minarettes - I had a little plan at one time to grow minarettes down the sides of my veg garden, sort of like Italian Cypress trees. You've persuaded me otherwise! Fingers crossed for better fruit harvests for both of us this year. Have you any other fruit trees for pollination?

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  4. Caro, That is some good advice on pruning my tree our previous apple tree was just beginning to reach the height where it was almost getting to tall to easily pick the fruit. I look forward to seeing how your trees do this year after their cut. Sarah x

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    1. Thanks, Sarah - I thought the book made a lot of sense in keeping trees to a manageable height. Now I just have to figure out how to reach the branches of the tall pear tree! I'll definitely be doing a follow up post - whatever the outcome! xx

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  5. Your pruning seemed informed. It'll be fine I'm sure :)

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    1. I'm feeling confident about this one, guys. Given the way that over-pruned council trees throw up massive suckers every year, I'm convinced that it would take a lot more than my snippers to kill off these trees. Getting fruit will be another matter …

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  6. A really great post, and good timing too, I have yet to tackle my fruit trees. I started out trying to espalier the ones in the garden. I've let the tops grow though, and I'm not entirely sure what I want to do with them now. The two new trees at the allotment are going to be espaliered, so I need to attack them. And I assume from what you say about stone fruit that I should leave the plum well alone. I shall have a look at the links you've included, and hopefully by the end of it I should have a better idea of what to do. Thanks for the helpful post Caro. CJ xx

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    1. I love the look of espaliered trees and the way that they can be controlled. If the garden wall was west facing, that's what I would have done with these. Still, as I'm always saying, "when I get my own garden …" In this book, the author says to cut off the leader stem at the height you want so that the tree puts its energy into the side branches. Sounds a bit like espaliered trees but without the wires and with more branches to me! Hope this inspires you, let me know if you want more info. Caro xx

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  7. A most useful post on a subject that I need to get to grips with Caro. My two pear trees at home rewarded me with three mature pears last autumn but sadly they went mushy when picked, before I could eat them :( My fault perhaps for picking them maybe a week or two too early and then for not checking them daily. There were other fruits but these fell off in the summer in windy weather. The tree that produced the fruit was planted in the autumn of 2011 and then relocated in February last year. I was just so pleased that not only did it survive but it produced its first fruit too.
    The apple trees all three of them were planted at the allotment in the autumn of 2010. Strictly speaking allotment rules do not allow fruit trees but these are all on M27 dwarf rootstock. Fingers crossed they should be manageable and so far I've not had any complaints. They are planted near a boundary fence near the roadway so will not cast shade on a neighbouring plot. I've been looking at both pear and apple recently knowing that I must snip but not being sure where to start so thanks for the links. I chuckled at the thought of little you jumping up for those hard to reach apples but even if your tree does grow tall you can get long-handled apple pickers. Problem solved or one of them anyway :)

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    1. Don't forget I expect I could ask a few small boys to shin up the taller trees for me as well, Anna! I really want to see how this pruning method affects the trees although I'm not expecting prolific fruit in the first year; I really just want the tree at a manageable height. Funnily enough, although all the trees were on dwarfing rootstock, the apples and cherries have stayed small while the pears and plums have become huge! Probably just as well there's been no fruit!

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  8. Thank you Caro...I am so glad it was helpful. Two things. Your trees are absolutely PERFECT!! They look just like Paul's trees. Isn't it wonderful. For months I would stop and admire my plum. I love that pruning style. The other thing...I love your brick wall. Omg that is amazing.

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    1. Aw, thank you Erin! I can only hope that I'm successful in emulating Paul's trees. I love the wacky shape of his trees and the fact that they become good fruit bearers is just the icing on the cake. I've always summer pruned my cherry trees and get really prolific harvests year after year, even though they're little trees. The brick wall is great looking but does deprive nearby plants of water - I'm not sure edible plants for dry shade exist - another reason to open up the fruit trees!

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  9. An interesting, and informative, post which I'm sure will prove really useful to anyone who has fruit trees to prune and is unsure what to do.
    Fingers crossed that you finally get some fruit this year. Flighty xx

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    1. Thanks, Flighty. Pruning is a huge topic with lots of conflicting advice. It would be great if this post proves useful. Yes, indeed - fingers crossed for fruit! C x

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  10. Pruning has always been a bit of guesswork for me. I was advised to summer prune my apple espaliers, to promote fruiting spurs which has worked for me. Well, I take success as the trees that are 3+ years old have mostly fruited already. My dwarf pears (a double grafted i.e. grafted onto quince, then other pear rootstock, then the wanted pear variety) are just now fruiting for the first time. Well, two out of 4 varieties. Last year one set fruit but they obviously weren't properly fertilised and dropped early. I was devastated! Hopefully your pears will be happy with what you are telling them with your pruning and will respond next year.

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    1. You've done well, Bek, to get fruit so soon from your pears and apples. It's so disheartening when the fruit drops, leaving only the realisation that that's it for another year. Hope this year is a good one for you - I think aphids on mine may have had something to do with it as well.

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  11. Useful post thanks for all the research. Some neighbours of mine who are making a new garden want fruit trees so I shall email them this link.

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    1. Brilliant, thanks Sue! Pleased you enjoyed the post - I wish your neighbours well with their garden.

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  12. A very informative post Caroline, I always feel rather nervous when I prune my fruit trees. I do get some fruit but not as much as hoped for. We get plenty of blossom but not much fruit, do I have to pretend to be a bee if the weather is cold at blossom time?!

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    1. Ooh, I had a vision of you dressed in yellow and black and flitting around your garden with a large paintbrush there, Pauline! I used to feel nervous about pruning as I love to cut away at plants and worried that I was a bit too eager. It all survived though so I say trust your instincts!

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  13. This was interesting, I can see why you'd need to keep an eye on the fruit trees in an urban garden. I never seem to get around to pruning my fruit trees and apart from the latest ones all the rest have got away from me. I have been laden with fruit though so don't mind....I can see I'll have to take drastic action soon!xxx

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    1. Most trees are best left alone, Dina - as you say, it's just a problem when the garden isn't big enough to hold a huge tree. I've seen a pear tree in a local park that must be over 40ft tall - with no way of getting at the fruit, it just drops and rots. I can only hope the day will come when I'm also laden with fruit! xx

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  14. Pruning fills me with dread. I haven't a clue how I should be doing it, I just go with instinct. Perhaps this would be a good book for me too.

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    1. I had a particular interest in pruning to keep my trees at a manageable height, Jo. I've also read really good advice on pruning in two other books: The Fruit Tree Handbook by Ben Pike and Fruit by Mark Diacono (River Cottage Handbook No 9). Either of these would be good for you to read if you want solid advice on pruning fruit trees. Caro x

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  15. I planted an espalier apple a few years ago now. Initially I was a bit scared of the pruning element but I dug out all the books I had and went for it. So far I have only needed to prune in July to encourage more spurs. I have heard pears are trickier to grow. So much can go wrong with top fruit. Late frosts catching the blossom, a dry spell when the fruit are forming and with plums and cherries there's the problem with sliver leaf. We lost an ornamental cherry to canker so I'm nervous about planting a cherry in future - even though they're my favourite fruit. Fingers crossed for home-grown pears. :)

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    1. I think the best way to learn is to need to know how to do something. I've just checked back in my other books and found that they reinforce the message of pruning in the winter for growth and the summer for fruit. When I first read them, I just wanted to know how to prune so missed that important message! Duh! Will you have to leave your espaliered tree behind if you move? That would be very hard, I think. Shame about your cherry tree but I'd be tempted to grow another one anyway - try Merchant or Merton Glory as they're supposed to be resistant to bacterial canker. Then when you've got lots of fruit, you'll just have to worry about keeping the birds off! xx

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  16. gah, I would be loathe to cut down a tree. that would break my heart! so i'm glad pruning is working.
    I must admit the sentiment "enough space for a little birdie to fly thru" made me laugh. hmmm, I bet they wouldn't want birds flying thru once the fruit is ripening.

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    1. I hate to lose any plants and will go to great lengths to rescue any that are looking a bit sad but I've learnt to be more ruthless in the garden. If I had the strength (or a crane), I'd dig up one of each tree and replant. Hopefully the pruning will work wonders. That birdie phrase made me chuckle too - and I had lots of little Blue Tits on the trees last summer as they feasted on the aphids!

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Caro x

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