It’s the Most Prune-able Time of the Year!

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Armed with my trusty pruning shears and humming my little made-up ditty to the tune of that holiday classic “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,”my leaping, cavorting dogs and I make our way to our fruit trees. We have persimmons, nectarines and pomegranates. The trees need pruning and this is the time of year to do it. The trees are dormant and all the pesky leaves have fallen. The structure of the tree is visible.

I started my “career” in pruning years ago when I discovered an apricot tree in my back yard at a previous home. It was struggling to survive and I wanted to help it do so. So I dug it up and put it in a place where marauding dogs and children weren’t going to mash into it any more. I thought to myself, “If it doesn’t make it no big loss.” It didn’t cost me a thing.

As time went on, the tree made it and made it big time. I even got apricots from it. It’s marvelous how nature really wants to do its thing. To help, I cut it back some using tried and true pruning guidelines. That’s when it really took off.

Since then I have simply enjoyed the process of pruning and shaping a tree. It’s kind of an art form in my opinion. You look at the bare branches and you think, “If I took off those how much stronger and prettier the tree would be.” Like an artist you take action here, step back to observe there and step forward again to make another cut somewhere else. Pretty soon something nice takes shape.

Last year I worked on my nectarine trees that had been terribly neglected. They had never been purposefully watered. They had loads of fungus and were obviously very stressed. They still hung on and even produced shriveled fruit. They really were crying out for some help so I cut them back drastically because like a soldier on the battlefield, the poor tree was suffering from its version of gangrene. I cut away all the diseased limbs down to a few strategic branches. It looked like I killed it. My husband said, “Why did you do that?” He was sure that I had killed it. I said, “Dear one, trust me, it’s hard to kill a tree. You’ll see.” It was exactly what the tree needed. This year it came back and fluffed out so beautifully and next year I’ll get some really tasty nectarines.

My Tools

I use the best tools I can afford and in the past I have not been able to afford very much! These are my trusty pruning shears, loppers and pruning saw. I don’t recommend any brand but I will say don’t get the cheapest. Cheap tools are a waste of money if you don’t already know. They wear out fast and don’t work very well in time and you’ll be buying more cheap tools making them expensive.

A word about using the heavier tools

You’ll be using the heavier loppers and saw for the larger branches. Try to support the branch when you cut it. A helper is great. If you cut a heavy branch without support you are running the risk of tearing a strip of bark off underneath the cut. This is not such a factor in cold weather while the tree is dormant, but if you can avoid it the tree will be that much more attractive later on.

Basic pruning guidelines:

  • Remove branches that point down
  • Remove branches that criss-cross each other
  • Remove branches on the underside of the limb
  • Remove branches that point in toward the trunk
  • I usually look at my tree and imagine it looking like a open vase.

In the very center you see branches that are crossed. One of them has to go. Probably the one on the left because it’s also pointed in to the center.

Branches pointing down need to go.

Crossed and downward pointing branches aren’t strong. Branches pointing toward the middle of the tree clog up air flow and block sunlight making disease easier to flourish.

Here’s where the art comes in: you have to decide what stays and what goes. I do this by moving very slowly and contemplating my next cut like a chess player. I try to imagine the over-all tree and make decisions based on that. I also cut very conservatively. It’s not important to get it perfect every single time. If you under prune you can always come back next dormant season and do more. It all doesn’t have to be done right now.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Most people have budgets for only one cutting tool each, so dip them in alcohol between trees so as not to spread disease.
  • You can remove buds from on the underside of the limb. Carefully flick them off with your fingers. If you do this they won’t grow out and you will have less to prune later.

  • Pruning when the tree is dormant helps the tree heal. Diseases are less likely to occur on the cuts in cold weather.

Before: Some dead wood and criss-crossed branches.

After pruning:Open vase shape. Ready for spring.

My parting advice: be brave! You can do it. Get in touch with your inner artist, go slow, and contemplate each cut. You’ll be ok.

Photos Property ofRenée-Lucie Benoit