Our little orchard has the three P’s of fruit trees – peaches, pears and plums. And we have blueberry bushes and blackberry vines. Late January and early February have proven to be a good time on our farm to get everything trimmed up and ready for new growth. Any later and the weather has the potential to start warming up and generating new growth that you don’t want to take off. These are our quick and easy tips for pruning fruit trees and shrubs.
Why bother pruning?
Overall it encourages more vigorous plant growth and focuses the plant’s resources on good quality growth and fruit. Pruning allows you to remove dead or weak limbs and open the tree to help prevent diseases and rot. Pruning can also be used to limit tree height or ‘train’ trees to a particular shape or form.
We have a young orchard, our oldest trees are only about 4 years old, so pruning has been mostly about training our trees and encouraging growth in the strongest and healthiest limbs. If you have a well-established, old orchard I would recommend reaching out to local tree experts or university extension services for advice. Pruning older trees can either bring a lagging orchard back to life or go ahead and finish it off.
How do I prune?
For fruit trees, there are three basic types of tree structure.
The central leader, characterized by one center mostly straight trunk with multiple secondary limbs growing from that trunk. I always picture a pine tree when I think of this form.
The modified leader, this is a combined form of the central leader and the open center form described below. Because it is a hybrid form it is a little harder to describe but picture a central trunk with multiple secondary limbs that then gets topped out. The top is removed to limit height and encourage growth in the secondary limbs.
The open center form. Think vase shaped
or upside down triangle. You want a nice spiral of well-spaced perimeter branches with no center trunk above the topmost branches.
Confused? Check out these diagrams. If you’re a visual person like me they probably make a lot more sense than my descriptions.
So, what form do I use?
We prune our peaches and plums with an open center form. This form is good for most stone fruits and encourages more air flow at the center of the tree. This is good because in our humid climate disease and rot can quickly take over young trees.
For our pears, I use the modified leader form. This is probably the most common form for pruning trees and is recommended by our local extension service for apples and pears. We have tried apples with little to no luck in our orchard so I can only personally recommend this for pears.
We don’t use a central leader form for any of our fruit trees. There is nothing wrong with it, it’s just not the way I was taught. If any of you have had good success with it in your own orchards, please let me know.
What about small fruits?
Small fruits are things like grapes, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. We only grow blueberries and blackberries so I can only speak to those.
For our blueberries, I trim out any diseased or dead limbs and then just shape the bush up a little. I try to trim off any ‘wild hairs’ so to speak. Older plants should have old stems removed to encourage new growth but ours are still young.
Have you ever been to a child’s birthday party and there was that one kid who just would not coöperate no matter the activity or reward offered? Blackberries are that kid.
I’d like to tell you that I had some form or procedure for elegant, restrained blackberry vines. But I don’t. Our blackberries are planted on a wire trellis. We have 3 cables stretched between fence posts and I try to make sure that the vines are growing on those cables. I tie laterals to the trellis with a soft twist tie.
This time of year, I trim off the dead or diseased vines and any older vines to make room for new growth. I also try to detangle vines and prune any troublemakers. In my personal experience, I don’t think you can over trim blackberries in our area. The blackberries don’t seem to mind and by spring and summer they are up to their usual tricks and trying to take over the world.
Other pruning notes.
I find that giving my shrub roses a heavy pruning in the late winter makes them come back fuller and more shrub-like, with less long woody stems. I usually cut my shrub roses off about one-third to half way to the ground. Remove overlapping canes and try to open the center of the bush to improve air flow. Dense centers lead to disease so cutting back some of the central canes really seems to help the overall health of the bush.
And that’s it. Spend a couple of hours on a nice day with a good pair of shears and pruners and your fruit trees and shrubs will be ready for spring and bumper yields of crops.
Need some help planning for all those other spring prep chores? Check out our post with a printable checklist here.