Steyning Community Orchard Pruning advice for February

February means we are nearing the end of the pruning period in our Orchards. We have over 70 apple and pear trees that we’ve planted over the last 9 years that need checking/pruning at this time of year, so it keeps us busy.  But if you’ve not done yours yet, this month is your last chance.

Winter pruning of apples and pear trees is carried out while the tree is dormant, so between December and February. Fruit that has a stone, i.e., plums and cherries are pruned in summer, as the wounds left by pruning can be infected by fungal spores that cause Silver Leaf Disease, that can kill the tree.

Choose a dry frost-free day. Have a bow saw or pruning saw, loppers and secateurs to hand. Wear a glove on the hand that is not holding the saw, as this is the one you will inevitably cut if you do not. We’ve all done it, and learnt the hard way.

Before doing any pruning, walk around the tree and try to assess how it looks. What you are aiming for is a tree with well-spaced main branches, no crossing branches, and that has enough fruiting spurs to give you a good quality crop, but not so many that you get hundreds of tiny apples, or worse, no apples at all.

If your tree needs a lot of work, then phase it over several years, as you shouldn’t remove more than 25% of the tree in any one year. This causes the tree to think it’s under attack, responding by throwing out loads of ‘water shoots’ the following year to replace all the wood it has lost. This will make your future pruning job more complicated dealing with these.

So, let’s make a start. Are there any large branches that you can remove from the centre of the tree?

These are often the tallest branches, and because they are in the middle of the tree with the poorest light, give the lowest quality fruit. Reduce it in stages, making the last cut as clean as you can, leaving just an inch from where it joins the main tree. This will heal and callous over in a few years. The advice used to be to cover large cuts like this with a sealing compound, but this is not now recommended. The improved air and light in the centre of the tree will immediately improve the rest of the tree.

The next step to cut out any crossing branches that may be rubbing together. This rubs the bark off, creating an entry point for disease, and may weaken the branch causing it to break. If there is any obvious deadwood, you may want to remove this too. But fruit tree deadwood is a great habitat for all sorts of insects and bugs, so if it’s not causing a problem, or likely to fall and damage anything, then perhaps leave it.

At this stage have a look at the pile of material you’ve taken off the tree. Is it 25% of the tree already? In which case stop, and leave any more pruning until next year. If not, and your tree still looks thick with branches, then you can do some of the following:-

• Remove branches growing back into the middle of the tree.
• Remove branches that are directly above or below another branch.
• Reduce last year’s growth at the end of the branches by 1/3rd
• Older trees produce very congested fruit spurs. These are the cluster of buds where the blossom and fruit will develop. Rub some of these off with your fingers, if you can reach them.

If you have any questions about pruning fruit trees, then please feel free to contact us at the Community Orchard or have a chat with a local gardener or tree surgeon!

Good luck!


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