Latest Issue

Wintertime Project

“Cabin fever” hits us all, whether we try to avoid it or not. After days in a row of overcast skies, falling snow and below freezing temperatures, it is difficult not to be bitten by the feeling of being closed in with little hope of getting outside.

Fortunately, within a few days, the weather changes — temperatures rise and blue skies appear to provide an opportunity to spend time outdoors. So, what can we do to maximize our time when we can get out and enjoy the fresh air?

Pruning. Yep, this is the ideal time to prune fruit trees for maximum effectiveness. Joe Wentzler, an expert on apple trees and their care, once told me that the best time of the year to prune apple trees was “any time the saw is sharp.” However, more recent data supports the concept that wintertime is the appropriate time to prune fruit trees. That makes good sense since during the winter months the trees are dormant and thus cutting the branches will not cause the sap to weep from the fresh cuts.

Stark Brothers, based in Missouri, have been in business for over 200 years, supplying seedlings, plants and seeds for orchards, gardens and landscaping across the country. Any business that has been successful for that long is worth listening to, and they will tell you that virtually nothing is as important to the growth and development of a new seedling or young fruit tree as pruning.

If left unpruned, a young tree will struggle in its growth. If a drought should occur during the early life of a tree that is not pruned, it may not grow at all. Further, if left unpruned, they will take longer to bear fruit. This is why Stark Brothers prune all of their bare-root trees in their nursery row for proper shaping and then also prune the seedlings right before packing and shipping.

Initially, when bare-root stock is dug up, many of the fine hair-like roots that are necessary to absorb moisture and nutrients are lost and the remaining root system may be insufficient to feed the branches. At this point, there is an imbalance until the full sized top is pruned. The imbalance will cause the tree growth to be weak and slow. Keep this in mind whenever you might dig up and replant young seedlings.

Cutting the tree back actually stimulates stronger and more vigorous growth from the remaining buds. After a single growing season, a properly pruned tree will be bigger and healthier than a matching unpruned tree.

Branches that come off the main stem in a tight V-pattern should be removed, as they will likely split away from the stem when they begin to bear fruit. The strongest branches are those that come away from the main branch at a 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock angle. They will hold up much better when a heavy crop of fruit might occur.

Make sharp clean cuts at a slight angle — just above a bud, yet far enough above so that die back of the branch will not kill the bud. Every branch has buds pointed in various directions. Since you want vigorous growth to spread away from the center of the tree, make your cut above a bud that is aimed outward. This helps your tree grow in a spreading pattern.

Shaping and pruning your young trees is not a once-and-done thing, but should be accomplished over several seasons. As the tree begins to mature and bear fruit, you will still need to attend to its overall condition. While late fall, winter and early spring are the best times to do the bulk of the pruning, there are a few things that should be done anytime you see them. If you notice a diseased branch or damaged branch (thanks to a deer or bear perhaps), it should be removed right away. Whenever you notice any upright branches (called ‘suckers” or “water sprouts”), they should be removed as they only sap strength from the tree. Additionally, remove any branch that is growing back toward the center of the tree. Don’t wait until winter to do this type of “touch-up” pruning.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *