Taking time to prune your trees keeps them healthy and fruitful

Published on Wed, Feb 26, 2014 by Quinn Welsch

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As winter gives way to spring, the grass becomes greener, the days grow longer and the trees begin budding. It’s the perfect time to work on your trees so that they can bear fruit in the summer and fall months.

The end of winter is the best time of the year for home gardeners to begin pruning their fruit trees, said Kelle Sunter, program manager for Blaine’s Community Orchards for Resources and Education (CORE). The final weeks of winter make for a smooth transition into spring due to the trees’ vegetative states, and by pruning now, gardeners can optimize tree strength, fruit production, fruit quality, ease of access and appearance in the spring, she said. 

“Grab a cup of coffee – or your beverage of choice – and look at your trees,” Sunter said. “Where are you going with the 
shape of your tree? What do you want it to do?”

By taking the occasional trip outside and selecting which shoots and branches need to go little by little, gardeners will save themselves time during the pruning process, Sunter said. She recommends gardeners keep a lookout for unwanted branches throughout the year as well. Pruning is about taking your time, Sunter said. It’s about creating balance. 

To balance the number of shoots and branches on a fruit tree, gardeners can regulate the amount of light and airflow each tree receives by “heading” or “thinning” each tree. 

Heading requires gardeners to cut off just the top part of a shoot, which means less light, airflow and less overall fruit production. Why head? Simple: It strengthens the existing branches by keeping them shorter. However, most cuts should be thinning cuts, since heading can cause an imbalance when fruit buds begin to grow back, said George Kaas, a Blaine High School horticulture teacher and CORE volunteer.

Thinning requires the entire branch or shoot to be cut off at its origin. By thinning, gardeners can increase the amount of sunlight and airflow and increase overall fruit production. Providing airflow is the best way to prevent disease, and providing 
more sunlight increases fruit development and can improve the quality of the fruit’s sugar.

A common mistake gardeners make, especially when they are revitalizing overgrown trees, is pruning too much, Sunter said. “You don’t want to do it all at one time,” she said. Prune about 25 percent of a tree’s unnecessary shoots and branches one year, and then another 25 percent the next year, Sunter said. Trim every third or fifth shoot, she said. Doing so keeps a tree’s growth stabilized and limits trauma.

Gardeners should also avoid applying any products on tree wounds after thinning or heading branches, Sunter said. There is no clear evidence that they prevent disease, according to a Washington State University Extensions publication. Dressing tree wounds might actually increase the chances of disease, Sunter said. CORE holds gardening classes every other week at the Blaine Public Library. For more information on CORE, visit nwcore.org or contact Sunter at fruit@blaine-core.com.