A GROWING CONCERN: Don’t get snippy about pruning trees

TODAY, WE ARE going to wrap up our short course on pruning.

I am always worried about people having just enough knowledge to kill their plants, and pruning is a perfect case in point.

Even though we will spend three weeks on this, a full semester wouldn’t be fully adequate to cover all the nuances.

I therefore suggest that everyone find some good books, literature or website info on pruning to further assist you.

With that, let us recall that confidence is your main asset — never forget to first see the finished product in your mind.

Always prune for a specific reason with each individual cut.

Keep in mind you are either heading or thinning, and all too often you should be doing the latter.

With these tenets and techniques, we are off to attack your large trees.

The weather gods must be reading this column, because nothing could have been better this time of year and for this type of pruning than the good cold snap we just had last month.

The unseasonable temperatures have abated and the sun is still low in the winter sky. Now is the perfect time to prune trees and edible fruit.

Your best tools are very sharp loppers, pruners and your curved orchard saw. A good strong ladder is also essential for safety sake.

The ongoing pruning you perform on your trees can be the difference between a beautiful shade fruit-bearing plant or one on a road to death or structural damage.

As always with pruning, use thinning cuts to eradicate dead, diseased, crossover or rubbing branches.

On trees, also remove (any time of year) suckers, water sprouts or those limbs with weak, cracked crotches. These are the primary concerns and should be performed first and as an ongoing strategy.

Next, one must determine the overall goal or purpose of this tree. Will it be used for shade or a screen requiring a thick lush growth? Will it be for a filtered light situation or to frame a view requiring thinning? What about a hammock holder, or swing set for the kids or their tree house? These would require setting good strong, cleared branches.

In all cases, figure out the end results first.

If your trees are to be walked under a lot (mowing) you should consider “limbing up” the tree. Remove those branches with a deep undercut first, then cutting down to that collar cut.

A great trick with large branches is to make an undercut a few feet off the trunk then cut through, removing the vast majority of weight and bulk first. Then move to the final undercut and prune through.

Removing the bulk of the limb first allows one to easily make the precision cut, free from the tremendous stress of that huge branch.

Limb up slowly. By removing them in successive years, you actually contribute to the girth and taper of the trunk.

Next, you need to pay attention to the scaffold branches, the limbs growing directly from the trunk.

Thin some of these, if needed, to evenly space them and so they are not too crowded.

Branches that have narrow crotch angles should be cut away in favor of ones with wider angles because they will be stronger.

Always remove branches that are growing towards your roof and windows, or ones that are out of place in the natural silhouette of the tree.

As you move up the tree to the “central leader” (growing tip), be very careful not to remove it. That’s the future growth and height. But definitely thin out any branches that compete directly against it.

If you want this tree to be a screen, you should retain lower branches. You will want a full tree, so perform a few thinning cuts in order to set a strong inner structure. Then use heading cuts to promote good lateral, secondary scaffolds.

This is also a yearly winter job.

As far as your fruit trees are concerned, we have a few modifications to the above techniques.

One system common for apples, peaches and pears is the “open center system.”

There is no central leader here. It is removed and several strong branches are pruned to form a bowl-shaped scaffold.

This also allows light to fully penetrate the center of the tree, producing better colored fruit.

Another system is the “modified leader system.”

This involves pruning out a strong central leader, framed by several strong lateral branches.

This creates a very sturdy open framework that produces more fruit. Never ever allow several leaders to develop. Fruit trees will try to produce forked tops and this will be a recipe for future disaster.

Cut away these competing leaders just above a good strong lateral node or branch.

Remember, on fruit trees, small branches and those short stubby growths called spurs are where the fruit is borne and should be left alone as much as possible.

Very little wood should be taken from pear trees, and peaches want an open center.

Older cherries need to be pruned with care, over successive years, because they bleed easily.

On fruit trees, the key is to remove all sucker shoots and water sprouts (fast growing branches that rise straight up), along with choosing your cuts on nodes to produce downward arching branches.

This is far from the definitive course on pruning, but it is enough to get you started and seeking further knowledge.

So, please stay well and stay safe.


Andrew May is a freelance writer and ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email news@peninsuladailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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