I usually schedule the last week of February and the entire month of March to do what I consider “Fruit tree maintenance.”
This entails everything from picking up any fallen fruit that I had missed in the fall and tossing it into the compost, trimming trees and treating the bark of the trees with dormant oil.
I try to grow my fruit trees as organically as possible. Which means I still get plenty of bugs and zero perfect looking apples.
Nothing that grows on my trees would ever look right at the grocery store. However, if you are willing to cut away the bad parts and eat the usable sections, I can almost guarantee that they will be the best apples that you have ever tasted. They just take a bit of work to get even close to edible.
By not spraying the daylights out of them as most conventional fruit farms do, I don’t have to worry about my goats eating the apples and pears or any of the other wildlife that helps themselves. We have at least 25 apple trees and at least a half dozen pear trees. I figure there is more than enough for us and the animals out there and realize that they need to eat as well.
Trimming the trees always seems to be a bit more to me of a science than an actual pruning attempt. Most importantly, never trim more than a third of anything when pruning — trees included. You can easily throw them into shock and accidentally kill them. And since most fruit trees take around four to five years to even think about producing, that would be awful to have to start all over again.
Most of the work is trying to figure out which branches to cut. For years I have done this and spend an insane amount of time trying to figure it out, until I stumbled across a marking system that works for me.
I use colored yarn to mark the branches that I plan to cut to help me visualize how much of my tree is being cut back or branches eliminated. I use red string for the branches that are being removed. These are any branches that are rubbing another branch and creating a wound, or any branch that for some reason or another already has a wound. Wounds on trees attract insects that will decide to wage war on your tree. If you don’t catch it in time, they can destroy your entire tree.
If it makes it easier to visualize, you can go ahead and remove all the branches that you have marked with the red string. Then you need to stand back about 20 feet so that you can look at the structure of your entire tree.
I like to thin out branches here and there to let my tree fill in better and grow to its mature size. However, sometimes trees grow much taller than we care to deal with or to where we can maintain them. Please do not top your tree, when you clear cut the entire tree at a certain height it makes it harder for that tree to recover.
Instead, if you must lessen the height go through and clip branches back to where they meet another stem so that you aren’t leaving a bunch of sharp twigs protruding. Anytime to cut a plant back to the leaf node or the section where it joins another part if the branch, you give it an easier area to scar over. This uses less of your plant or trees energy to recover.
Most times I will trim things back, and then go back again to fix the areas that need a little more removed. In other years I have completely removed every third branch to bring the tree back to a workable size for me to reach without breaking out an extension ladder.
If it is your first year try not to go too crazy so that you can gauge your results the following growing season. This will help you to figure out how much you need to remove the following year. If you trim too much back, you will affect the fruiting of your tree. Then you’ll most likely have to wait another year before anything happens again.
Find yourself a nice sunny winter day and get out there and start pruning back those trees. Otherwise you’ll miss the window before budding and have to wait until next year if you don’t want to sacrifice this year’s fruiting.
Sacha Burns is an organic gardener and owner of Sunkissed Organics in Pinola. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org