One of my favorite things to do is prune fruit trees. While some may consider it a chore–and I suppose if you have a full orchard it would feel that way–I find peace and satisfaction in tending to the trees that feed me. For this reason I could get carried away with the subject, so I will do my best to give simple, useful, concise tips on the best way to get started. Please note that I am not an expert; the following advice is based on my own experience and I recommend doing your own research to supplement it.
If you have fruit trees, now is the time to prune them! Winter pruning is used to invigorate new growth in trees, thus increasing fruit production in the future. Apples and pears especially need pruning while they’re dormant, and with this unseasonably warm weather we’re having, they may not be dormant much longer. Stone fruits such as peach, plum and apricot should be pruned closer to spring so they can begin to grow immediately while avoiding damage from the coldest weather.
Purchase or borrow a pair of bypass pruners and bypass loppers. These will suffice for a well-cared-for tree. If you’re tackling a long-abandoned tree, you will also need a pruning saw. (You can also find pruning blades for a reciprocating saw–a great option, especially if it’s cordless). These tools need to be sharp so they make clean cuts. If yours are dull, bring them to the market and have them sharpened by Lon’s Sharpening!
There are many pruning tutorials online and I recommend watching a few if this is your first time. I’ve learned how to prune from a few different experts In Arizona and New Mexico. My favorite technique comes from Lilian and Jacobo of Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture: The four Ds. Start out by cutting off at the source all branches that are Downward, Diseased, Damaged, or Dead. By pruning the four Ds, you’ll allow energy to flow to more productive branches, increasing growth of the tree and hopefully fruit production in the years to come.
Once you’ve done this, I recommend looking in the center of the tree for inward twigs as well. Trees need good air flow and sunlight, so if there are too many branches in the center of the tree, you’ll need to snip those as well. If your tree has been putting a lot of energy into water sprouts or “suckers,” you’ll need to attend to these also. Instead of cutting them off at the source as you did with the other branches, find an outward facing bud along the branch and make a cut right above it. This will channel the energy into that bud and instead of growing straight up as before, it will start to grow out. Be sure not to prune more than 30% of your tree, especially if it’s been long neglected. Make the necessary cuts then see how the tree grows over the course of the next year.
If you’re interested in learning more about pruning, I recommend Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard and The Apple Grower. Also, Stella Otto’s the Backyard Orchardist has lots of information for small scale growing. Peruse the internet for pruning tutorials like Pruning 101 from Peaceful Valley Seed Company. Have fun out there!