25 Nov 2011

Too Soon to Prune ...

I'd earmarked November as being my month for thinking about fruit. I need to move half of my 3 year old fruit trees to space them out more and I also want to order more: a couple of apple trees, a peach tree, some blueberry bushes and two sweet cherry trees. No problems there because the milder weather will make the work much easier than digging and planting in the biting cold.

I'd also thought pruning would be on the task list by now but no.  The cherries are the only fruit trees that are dropping their leaves. Plums, apples and pears are still fully clothed.  The raspberries that I've grown are late fruiting Autumn Bliss - they started fruiting in August and are still providing the odd handful. In any case, I've read that autumn raspberry canes should be left until 'late winter' when they can be cut to the ground. What does that mean? Does late winter mean calendar December or, more likely, when truly cold and frosty weather is upon us?  Do the canes drop their leaves so that I know for sure? Help! For me, late winter is the last cold month to get through before temperatures start to rise, possibly late January/early February. Could anyone shed any light on this for me?


Pruning is a subject I knew very little about until recently.  (I'm reviewing an excellent book with very good chapters on this subject, more very soon.) As luck would have it, last Sunday afternoon I was invited to join a fruit pruning workshop in a local community garden behind a block of council flats. Fruit trees planted there a couple of years back by the Carbon Army (BCTV volunteers) had never been pruned so the council had booked a mid-November tree pruning workshop for the tenants. Problem was, with weather still continuing to be mild (for this time of year), we weren't able to tackle much. The only bushes that were obviously ready were the gooseberry bushes which looked like bleached thorny twigs.

Pruning workshop
Tom shows a workshop participant how to prune gooseberries.

We wandered around looking hopefully at redcurrants, blackcurrants, peach trees and espaliered apple trees, all holding onto their autumn leaves, and were advised that it was best to put our secateurs away. Tom Moggach from City Leaf was our teacher for the workshop and, having explained about the best time to prune different fruit trees and bushes, the hows and whys of shaping an espaliered fruit tree and airborne fungal diseases, he then told us of the 3 D's of pruning (dead, dying, diseased, all should be pruned out) and demonstrated how to shape.  We were let loose on the gooseberry bushes, pruning out any of the 3 D's and crossing stems, cutting back the strong leader stems by one-third (to an outward facing bud) and then trimming back any other stems to two buds (again, looking for a bud that would enhance the open basket shape of the bush). Tenants said that these gooseberry bushes had fruited well in the summer and were loathe to chop them back too much but Tom explained that this would promote healthy growth for next season, allowing air to circulate through the centre of the bush and so reducing the risk of any problems from pest or fungal infection.  It was really satisfying to get hands on with the job and I think it all looked much tidier when we'd finished!

It was a very informative couple of hours but I'd really gone along to have a look at the gardening space (and available light) as one of the tenants has asked for a bit of help with growing vegetables next year.  I have to say, I think she's doing a pretty good job by herself (wonderful nasturtiums, made into pesto for the winter picnic) but the trade-off was being able to see pruning in action.  I'm much better off actually seeing something being done (and being able to ask questions, if needed, to confirm that I've got the idea). I've come away feeling that my book learning has been reinforced and, yes, have the confidence to know what I'm doing with my trees (once the leaves fall off!).


  1. Now that you've got the 'knowledge' you can come and help me prune my fruit trees - sounds as if you gained a lot from the workshop - I'm afraid that most of mine is done through trial and error even though I've read up about it - I think it's jolly hard to get it right.

  2. Elaine, I'm reviewing a book which explains pruning so well, even I could understand it! The trick seems to be understanding how the tree reacts to being cut back - so you know where best to cut - and also pruning to shape the tree, especially in the first few years although it's never too late!
    Caro x

  3. Hi Caro, if it helps I usually cut my autumn raspberry canes down late December to late January, depending on the weather. I shall be leaving mine till late January while the weather remains relatively mild.

    Hope you're well?

    Karen x

  4. I don't touch my raspberries until late February when I can generally see what needs pruning.
    A lot of people have trouble pruning so a good book and a course like this is well worthwhile. Flighty xx

  5. Pruning confuses me a bit too, especially the bit about 'tip beaing' and 'spur bearing' buds on apple trees. Also the bit about apples fruiting on 2 year old wood - what do you do in year 3? All things considered, I don't seem to be doing that badly, so I am wondering if it matters at all?

  6. I followed a tip for pruning 'Autumn Bliss' raspberries last year with excellent results. In December/January cut half the row to the ground and the other half of the row to 50cms tall. Those cut to 50cms started to produce raspberries earlier,in mid-august, the rest came later making a continuous supply for about 3 months.

  7. I usually cut my raspberries down end of February, start of March but I might try backlanenotebook's tip

  8. Pruning is a scary subject...do it at the wrong time and your poor tree is doomed. Good thing you took that course :)

  9. @Karen @ The Garden Smallholder
    Hi Karen, Nice to hear from you and thanks for the tips. I think late Jan/early Feb makes sense for pruning autumn raspberries. Will take your advice!

  10. @flightplot
    Flighty, pruning can be so scary because of the damage that can be inflicted, either through cutting badly or bad timing. I hope I'll get it right in future! C x

  11. @Matron
    When you look at apple trees growing in the wild, you may have a point about the importance of pruning. Since the course, I keep noticing whether a tree has been well pruned or not - you can tell!

  12. @backlanenotebook
    Your tip makes perfect sense to me! And well worth a try! Thanks!

  13. @wellywoman
    You and me both, Welly! Anything that prolongs the raspberry fruiting season has got to be worth a try!

  14. @Tanya @ Lovely Greens
    I absolutely agree Tanya! I used to think all pruning should be done in winter - now I know better but it will feel strange to be cutting back fruit trees, like cherries, while their leaves are still on the branches!

  15. I prune my autumn fruiting raspberries about February /March time.

    I think late winter is Febriary - ie towards the end of winter.

    1. Hi Sue, thanks for commenting - you've read back a fair few months! It's been interesting for me to read through these comments again and thanks for your advice. I must admit I do itch to start tidying the canes when I tidy the rest of the veg patch but know better now and leave them be over the winter. I do follow the advice from Backlanenotebook and leave half the row at 50cm for earlier cropping - so far, it's been a successful system for me and I'm fairly well fed up with raspberries by November!! Caro x

    2. For some reason I had missed some of your posts - We grow summer fruiting raspberries as well and so I just cit back all the autumn rasp canes but I have heard the partial chop works well. Are the berries as large in the second year?

    3. My posts are easy to miss, Sue - I'm not regular in posting, I just write when I can find the time! (Despite best intentions!) Certainly the partial chop extends the fruiting season for the raspberries but I haven't noticed a change in the size of berries. The berries on Autumn Bliss have always been of a medium to small size and I don't think that the time of cutting back the canes has made any difference to that. What I have noticed is that other cultivars have larger berries so I'm going to start to clear out the Autumn Bliss and replace them with Joan J, Polka or Brice, all of which are large, sweet and juicy. The veg patch is very tiny so I have to make sure that every thing earns its place!


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