A GROWING CONCERN: Seven reasons to prune your orchard

This great weather really has me concerned! As a “good old Wisconsin boy” (go Pack go), anything above freezing in January — well, actually above zero, the forecasted wind chill for today’s Packer playoff game — is a good thing.

So with the low temperatures all this coming week predicted to be in the mid to upper 30s, tropical weather has descended upon the peninsula.

Even worse, as the day length continues to dramatically increase, so does our daytime temperatures with upper 40s and 50s all this coming week as well! I’m not normally an alarmist, but I am ringing the alarm bell now; prune your fruit trees!

This week, as I have been pruning orchards, the sap was starting to run. I even encountered a plum blossom. So please go out now and prune the orchard.

To prepare you for this, I will again give you the seven reasons to prune whereas orchards use five or more together, all the time and year after year. And with the coming springlike weather, absolutely get Mason bees, houses and egg tubes, and put up as soon as possible.

Mason bees will pollinate at much lower temperatures than conventional bees, so your early plums and fruit trees will indeed bear fruit. I cannot stress this enough.

Now, here is why you prune:

• To remove dead, dying, injured plant parts. At any time of the year you can, and always should, prune away any errant, disfigured, dead or injured plant pieces along with crossover branches or ones that rub against one another or your house.

By removing poor, weakened, sickly or dead growth, you increase the overall appearance of the plant and remove growth that fosters disease and insects.

Do this pruning when you first buy plants, after storms, heavy snowfall or severe wind storms, before major events in your yard, whenever you have time.

• To check growth where space is limited. This, unfortunately, is the most common reason people prune. Too often, plants are placed too close to one another, the house or the driveway, or they are too tall for the view or windowsill. Sometimes, a chainsaw or transplant shovel is the best option rather than pruning.

However, plants grow vigorously here on the peninsula, so now is the time to remove branches overhanging the driveway or the house.

February is the perfect time to lower the hedge, shear down bushes just in front of the window or untangle competing and encroaching branches from nearby plants.

• To thin out plants. This should be people’s No. 1 reason to prune, but alas, it is not. It is, however, mine. As we head off our plants, shearing or cutting the tips off, we naturally produce a thick and then too-thick plant because heading cuts beget new and abundant growth.

A gardener needs to constantly thin away branches and laterals by removing them at the point of origin. That is the definition of a thinning cut and prune, to remove the plant piece at the point it grows off of another. This type of pruning is extremely beneficial because it opens up the plant to air circulation and light, both of which are essential to healthy growth. A necessity in any orchard!

• To encourage root growth. We covered this last week: All pruning is stimulating and beneficial, and so it is with root pruning.

Remember, this root-enhancing method is a great secret in rejuvenating old orchard trees or big vines precisely because it jump starts root production and shakes up neglected plants.

• To alter intelligently the form. This is my favorite reason to prune, so it should be all of yours, because if you do not perform this in conjunction with any of the other reasons, you are not pruning.

The reason you or anyone prunes is to alter the plant to a preferred look, height, shape, level of production, health or size. Plant butchery is when you just hack at a plant for an arbitrary reason — the window height, driveway edge or being 6 inches off the house — without considering what is best for the plant.

All cuts should produce a pre-determined result. The essence of fruit tree pruning. Always prune intelligently!

• To encourage fruit/flower/foliage production. Many plants dramatically increase production with proper pruning. Apple trees, cherries, nuts and berries all prosper greatly with correct pruning in order to increase fruit. Roses bloom far more profusely with correct pruning, as do lilacs, rhododendrons and many, if not all, woody ornamentals.

Evergreen trees are sheared to produce full, lush, dense Christmas trees, and your hedges become thick (do not forget to thin) with numerous prunings. Increased flowers, fruit and foliage are great reasons to prune, and this month is ideal.

• Rejuvenate/rehab suffering plants. Rehabilitating or rejuvenating pruning by definition removes more than 60 percent of the plant. This type of pruning is an effort to ward off the chainsaw or compost pile.

Rhododendrons are prime plants for rejuvenation, as are roses, lilacs, potentillas, pussywillows, forsythia, spireas and big nasty orchard trees (however, the latter takes two to three years to rejuvenate).

I just took some 5-foot hydrangeas and 10-foot red twig dogwoods down to 4 to 6 inches in an effort to rehabilitate their old, blistered, tired and diseased look, and it will work perfectly.

There is your list of seven reasons to prune. Remember, many work in conjunction, but few domesticated plants work well without some pruning.

As far as your orchard is concerned, I basically use all these seven techniques with the fruit trees I am paid to manage, but whatever method you use, do so now before their sap really begins to flow.

And please, stay well all!


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 [email protected] (subject line: Andrew May).

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