Showing posts with label pruning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pruning. Show all posts

27 Jan 2015

"Pruners learn by pruning"

Pear harvest, 2014. Not to scale! 

Pruning has a reputation for being scary, right? It makes new gardeners nervous because of the very real possibility that a tree or shrub can be pruned into non-fruiting, non-flowering or, worst of all, non-existence.  I love a bit of pruning, everything looks tidier afterwards but I have to remember that I'm no expert and have a tendency to be a tad over-enthusiastic with the snippers. As such, I'm always open to any tips which will increase my knowledge (and therefore confidence) in how to do this job properly to benefit the plant, especially where my fruit trees are concerned.

My pear trees have been on my mind because so far in their short lives (six years), they've yet to bear fruit. They're Conference pears and although they're self-fertile, I have two of them for better pollination.  Last year there was lots of blossom, lots of bees, lots of teeny tiny fruit and then the slow realisation that they'd all fallen off. I did find a solitary two inch long fruit that had fallen from the tree in high winds midsummer but that was it for 2014.

The pear trees in the veg patch garden were one year old bare root whips on a 'semi-dwarfing' Quince C rootstock when we planted them in December 2009.  I knew very little about pruning and believed that the rootstock would limit the trees to what I then thought was an acceptable 3 metres tall (around 10 feet).  I also thought they were supposed to fruit within 3 to 4 years.  Well, time has proved me wrong.

Fruit trees in March 2014 - plums nearest, then apples, then pears. 

The height of the trees now makes me think that we've planted them too close together, fitting 8 fruit trees into a 35 ft long border.  The intention had been to plant 4 of each variety (pear, plum, apple, cherry) in the border with a matching border on the other side of the garden.  Biting winds and a lack of time changed our plans and all 8 went in together.  Last summer I looked at the dense canopy of the plum and pear trees (no fruit on either) and had recurring thoughts about chopping down one of each tree to open things up.

Luckily a Plan B has emerged in the shape of a few videos and book recently reviewed on Emma Cooper's blog - Grow a Little Fruit Tree by Ann Ralph.  I immediately bought a copy and read it within the next couple of days. I've also watched You Tube videos (links below) by Paul Gautschi (reknowned for being a master arborist in his Back to Eden garden in the USA) and Bill Merrill, a Californian edible landscape gardener.  All these people believe in keeping their trees to a manageable height (no more than six feet) for ease of pruning and fruit picking. Apple branches are pruned to grow outward, so that no branch shadows another, or down because horizontal branches crop more heavily. Pear centres are opened up - as Bill Merrill says "So the little birdies can fly through the middle" (possibly where I've been going wrong) and they've found that their trees still give a good crop but without having to persuade neighbours to take the excess after making industrial quantities of preserves.

Braeburn apples last summer. This is a spur bearing tree  with the apples hanging from near horizontal branches.
Pruning will promote spur growth. 

The book's author, Ann Ralph, believes pruning should be done twice a year - around the winter solstice for growth and the summer solstice for shaping.  The theory goes that in late winter the tree is ready to break dormancy with the energy going up the trunk and into the limbs. By late summer the energy is directed downwards, back into the roots, as the tree prepares for winter dormancy again.  Winter pruning stimulates growth, pushing the tree's energy out into the remaining limbs. Summer pruning does not have this effect and is done to shape the tree aesthetically and to manage fruit production.

It all sounds so plausible and logical. Also, there are lines in her book which really resonate with me:
Fruit tree pruning […] is less of a science and more of a conversation. You prune, the tree answers, you prune again.
We're not talking chit-chat here but cause and effect. This reminds me of the Chelsea Chop, which is timed to promote vigorous and healthy growth for the flower show, and deadheading in our own gardens to prolong flowering.  All plants will respond to the attention that we give them.

On the subject of rootstocks (remember my pear trees are on semi-dwarfing rootstocks), Ann writes:
Semidwarf means only "smaller than standard". If a full-size tree is thirty feet tall, then a semidwarf might grow to be as high as twenty-five feet.  
Yikes.  This is a comment well-aimed at urban and small garden growers. Big trees will block the light; smaller trees are more suited to a domestic garden. And the smaller the tree, the more can be fitted into the garden, increasing the varieties that can be grown by an individual. There's also the more practical aspect of reaching the fruit on a tall tree.  I'm 5'2" - how am I going to pick fruit at the top of a 15 foot tree? I won't. It will fall to the ground and rot.

There's a little voice in my head reminding me of air-borne diseases and other reasons why we're advised to prune when we do (stone fruit in summer, pomes in winter) but I can't help being swayed by these arguments.  I'm going to give it a go. In fact, I started on my apple trees last weekend, taking a more considered approach than before.  (Winter pruning lets you see the shape of the tree clearly.) The pears are next, an altogether more daunting prospect given their height.  The proof will be in the pudding - hopefully, pear pie and apple crumble! - this coming summer. (Or maybe next.)

Apple trees before pruning: leaning together, tangled branches.

And after pruning: One main leader stem and strong branches not touching.

And any mistakes that I may make can be corrected in the next prune and will only help to improve my experience. The title of this post is a quote taken from the book; it will be true whatever the outcome.

You Tube: Worst case and best case pear tree pruning by Bill Merrill (GreenGardenGuy)
You Tube: How to prune apple trees by Paul Gautschi (Back to Eden)

PS.  I'm sending my thanks to Erin at Organic Gardening in Sidney (Canada) for sharing the Back to Eden pruning video on her blog which is where I first saw it some time back. Thank you, Erin!

13 Apr 2013

Hort Couture

Looks like it's going to be a good weekend for being outdoors, but I've already been making the most of the dry but cold weather of recent weeks to start the process of reclaiming another of the long walled borders.  For the ten years that I've lived here, this border has become increasingly overgrown without any annual maintenance with the result that it had begun to take over the adjacent path.

Border to clear

Two summers ago the Hebe at the far end was covered with pink blossom and hundreds of bees busily gathering nectar.  Everywhere I looked, busy, busy bees.  Last year there was no blossom and no bees.  The shrub seemed tired and neglected; lots of spindly twiggy branches under a very shallow but dense canopy of leaves - and sitting in a bed increasingly filled with plastic rubbish.  It was time for some drastic action, especially while the weather remained cold and before any spring growth appeared.
So over the Easter weekend (and spurred into action by my visit to Great Dixter), I wrapped up against the Siberian winds and popped down to the garden with my pruning saw, secateurs and lots of green waste bags.  I meant to just make a start but quickly realised how silly it would look to stop half way along.  One important point of gardening in a community area is to be aware of the visual impact of your work and not abandon projects half way through.  People may not want to get stuck in themselves, but they'll soon say something if a mess is left behind!

Seeing daylight

I hadn't planned on giving over half of my Easter weekend, but that's what was needed.  Once I'd starting pruning, I found two Hebe bushes (over 8 feet tall), a Cotoneaster, an Eleagnus, a Choisya ternata, several varieties of Cornus with stems 15 to 20 feet long with honeysuckle and ivy tightly binding the various shrubs together.  The bare branches underneath were rather beautiful so I just took away the side growth, and dead or crossing wood from the interior, leaving the top canopy to provide some summer shade, and shelter for birds. (Next winter will be soon enough for further work on these shrubs.)

My very good friend Leigh brought regular cups of tea and came as soon as she could to help me trim and bag up the green waste on day two - over 20 large bags went to be recycled! (Plus several carrier bags of plastic bottles, food wrappers, a shoe, a couple of socks, some toys and an old milk bottle - how long had that been there?!)

We were kept company throughout both days by this little chap ...

Robin on branch

... who took a great interest in the proceedings, and was duly rewarded with mealworms and other tasty bird treats once the rubbish was cleared.

Robin supervising

This was the view down to my little veg patch after final bags of woody branches and cornus stems had been disposed of - although I rather regret that last act of clearance as Lorna at The Green Lady has been writing of making hurdles and wreaths out of willow and cornus stems.  I feel I've missed an opportunity to create some lovely natural fences in the veg garden!  (If you fancy having a go, be aware that both willow and cornus stems will root very easily so should only be used for weaving the horizontals.)

Shady border
~ That's better! ~
The photo below is one I took in 2011 as I stood and watched the bees busily at work on the Hebe. If I've done the work properly I very much hope to see this scene again with plenty of food provided for visiting bees along with the other nectar rich flowers and herbs that will be growing in the veg garden by the beginning of summer.

Hebe bees

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!).
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