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Spring Tree Pruning

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If you have not done your pruning yet, now is the time to get out your hand pruners, loppers, and handsaw. Pruning should be done in late winter or early spring before trees are actively growing. One exception to this rule is when you have dead, diseased, or damaged branches (often termed the 3-D’s of pruning). Any of the 3-D’s may be pruned any time of year, ideally immediately after they occur. Water sprouts (vertical stems) or suckers (stems growing from the base of the tree) should be pruned when they are still small.

In addition to dead, damaged, or diseased branches, we prune to remove unwanted branches. Unwanted branches include crossover branches which can damage other limbs and harbor disease, branches growing at narrow angles, or hazardous branches. Pruning also directs tree growth for improving aesthetic quality or fruit production. With careful pruning, you can redirect a branch or modify a central leader by cutting back to an existing branch or bud.

Many people are timid about pruning. The most important thing about pruning is making proper pruning cuts. There are two things to avoid when pruning branches; leaving a stump that will die back and decay, or cutting flush against the trunk or branch. When removing a limb, cut at an outward and downward angle from the branch crotch and branch collar (the thickened wood at the base of the branch where it is connected to the tree). Poor pruning cuts leave plants susceptible to insects, disease, and girdling.  When trimming back a branch, always make the cut directly above a bud or node, which is where new growth occurs.

Ornamental trees do not generally require annual pruning. Most fruit trees require annual pruning and, when it comes to fruit trees, it is better to prune than not to prune.  Fruit trees are pruned in order to train tree shape and maintain annual fruit production. Begin pruning and training fruit trees as soon as they are planted. Choose branches that begin at knee height and are growing at a 45-60 degree angle. After the tree is 4 years old begin to prune for fruit production more than trying to shape the tree. For instance, a 4-year-old peach tree should have four main branches established. Peach trees are typically pruned as open-vase form, which means the central trunk is removed in the first year to stimulate growth of four primary branches. Since peach trees produce fruit on year-old wood, every year peach tree branches should be thinned and shortened by cutting at least one foot off the tip of the branch (“heading back”). This will promote new branches that will fruit the following year. For annual fruit production, prune off 50% of your peach tree every year.

Apples are a different story. Apples, like peaches, need to be trained through pruning during their first 4 years. Once apple trees are 4 years old, you only need to prune in order to maintain the shape and the health of the tree. For mature apple trees, thin and head back branches only when necessary. Heavy pruning on apple trees promotes more vegetative growth and less fruit production.

Answers to common pruning questions:

Do I need to put a sealant on pruning wounds?

No. tree wounds heal faster with airflow. Sealed pruning wounds often allow bacteria to develop faster than unsealed wounds.

Should I avoid pruning in wet weather?

No. Our late winter and early spring weather is often wet, so it is very difficult to avoid pruning in wet weather. It is better to get the pruning done than to wait until the tree is actively growing. Many fungal diseases favor wet weather and spread under wet conditions. In the case of an infected tree, prune immediately after you see signs or symptoms of the disease.

How do I prune an overgrown fruit tree?

If your fruit tree is too big, it is a standard sized tree. If you want a smaller tree, plant a dwarf or semi dwarf tree. When pruning an overgrown tree, it is recommended to only remove 25%, or 1/3, of the canopy each year. Therefore, it can take two or more years to restore an overgrown tree.

Please tell me what you think or what horticulture services you would like me to provide by sending an email to: helen.muntz@usu.edu.

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