Gardening With Allen: Prune fruit trees before they grow
By Allen Wilson for The Columbian
Published: February 11, 2023, 6:04am
My fruit trees have not been pruned for three years and have gotten too tall. Could you give me some suggestions for bringing them back into control? Is now a good time to prune?
It’s best to prune fruit trees before they begin to grow. I like to prune in February or March. We get some days even in February when it is warm and dry enough to work outside.
Most fruit trees are grafted onto semi-dwarf root stocks. But semi-dwarf trees can get up to 35 feet without pruning. I like to keep them at a maximum height of 12 to 15 feet.
Your first job is to prune the larger branches back to just above a side branch at about the maximum height you have chosen. The side branch should preferably be facing outward. When two side branches are crossing or rubbing against each other, one should be removed back to its origin. The best branches to leave are the ones growing outward.
Next, remove smaller branches that are growing into each other. Remove branches that are growing up or in and leave those growing outward. Your goal is to open up the tree so that plenty of light can reach the lower branches growing at about waist height so they will continue to bear fruit.
Typically, about one-third of the branches are removed back to their origin. Then some of the longer side branches can be shortened to a point just above an outward facing bud.
This heavy pruning will naturally stimulate a lot of branches to grow. Many of these branches will be what are referred to as “water sprouts,” which grow rapidly straight up. The best time to remove these water sprouts is in late May to June before they reach a foot in length. The best way to remove them is to snap them off while they are young and flexible. Pull them down or sideways with a quick jerk.
This removes tissue at the base that would be left if they were pruned off. This tissue contains latent buds that will sometimes regrow another water sprout later in the summer where the first one was removed.
Water sprout removal is not a big job. Just mark your calendar in June and check the trees frequently. Remove a few sprouts when you are outside doing other things.
There are differences between pruning fruit trees and shade trees. Shade trees should be allowed to grow to their full normal height and should not be pruned to an arbitrary maximum height. They can be thinned somewhat when branches cross and rub against each other.