Sunday, 26 January 2014

A Winter Trim

Winter is a time of year for clearing up in the garden. With no fresh plants to tend to and the weeds mostly hiding there is space to focus on big things. Particularly trees. When the leaves have fallen and the trees are dormant it is generally a good time to give them a good prune. Fruit trees that are pruned when dormant will sprout more shoots whilst those pruned in the summer are less inclined to shoot upwards. Our apple and pear tree had suffered several years of neglect so I am pruning in the winter to try and encourage new growth that I can use to reshape the tree. This will take several years to achieve as I don't want to lose my entire harvest!

It is important to prune fruit trees to ensure there is space for all the branches (overlapping and crowded branches cause issues), that the branches don't get too long (getting in your way and potentially snapping under a heavy harvest) and to get a desirable shape. It is important to let light and air get to all the branches. It is also worth ensuring the shape of the tree doesn't get in your way. If it overhangs the lawn prune lower branches so you don't hit them when pushing the mower around. Trim the top if it is getting too tall. It might seem obvious but its surprising how long I will dodge and duck under a branch before I get round to pruning it!
If you want to take the shaping further you enter the realms of cordons and espaliers. We are attempting to train a pair of trees to form an espalier arch but as I am still learning with those I won't teach you my bad habits! In this post I will run you through how I prune my bigger trees - do share your approach if it is different. I am by no means an expert.

Joe's Guide to Pruning

The first thing I do when pruning is to try and make sure the tree has space around it. We have several larger trees to the north of the fruit trees. Although they don't cast shadows our main apple tree was starting to look a bit overgrown and crowded.

Next I check for any overlapping branches and for overcrowded areas. Decide which of the branches are healthiest and in the nicest shape and prune the others. Try and catch them when its a year old shoot causing the problem rather than letting it get several years old. If you need to take out larger branches do so carefully. Try and get a clean cut (with a saw if the branch is large) and avoid damaging the surrounding tree as it comes out. Be careful not to create places where water can pool and rot the tree - this happens most at large forks and points where multiple branches sprout from one point.

My parents always pruned with a rule of thirds. If you take a third out you are unlikely to kill it. I tend to do the same with the trees - if it needs a significant reshape (as our pear tree does) take out no more than 1/3 each year. It will be done in a few years and the old wood should still fruit in the interim. It may seem dramatic chopping out significant branches but it is worth considering that a tree should happily fruit for many years. Chatsworth have a fine apple tree arch that is 30 years old and very productive!

Thirdly check for any diseased branches or rot. If the shoots look shrivelled or slightly rotten prune it. Check any forks for rot starting to form. I tend to go over zealous on removing iffy wood. Its not going to do the tree any long term harm if I take slightly more off than I need!

Finally prune for aesthetics and the future. Look at the shape and see if any growth is going in a direction you don't like. Decide which of the years growth you want to keep longer and which wants cutting back. I try and prune mine to one or two buds left if I just want to fruit in that area, or leave it at 6-10 buds for a longer shoot. I don't like excessively long branches so I tend to keep them at that.


  1. Bless you for this post! I have a fig tree in dire need of a trim and had no idea how to go about it. I will get right on it.

    1. Good luck! Do let us know how you get on :)

  2. This is a reminder for me to try and do something with my gigantic apple

    1. I have a colleague who enjoys taking my apple prunings and feeding them to his rabbit. He started asking around October so I have had a gentle bit of motivation to get on with it!


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