Winter is pruning time for fruit trees

July 23, 2015

So this week it was cold enough at my place to freeze the water in the pipes, two mornings in a row. The day dawned into glorious sunshine. Winter mornings should all be like those. Outside in the garden the frosts had done more permanent damage. Some small Echium were wilted and sad, the row of Zantedeschia was black and soggy and a few succulents had collapsed.

If your garden sustained frost damage over the last few weeks just let it go for the moment until the weather warms and frosts finish. Most plants will respond to pruning later in spring unless they are small. Pruning now however will encourage new growth which could be burnt again. Any dead foliage helps to protect living foliage lower down on your plants.

On these really cold mornings have an extra cup of tea and catch up on any paperwork or cleaning inside. Once it warms up grab your secateurs and an extra jumper and head out into the garden because there’s lots to do.

The first job is finish pruning your roses. Next head over to your fruit trees. Fruit trees are fabulous but if you are new to pruning them, there’s a few tricks you need to know to get the best from your efforts.

What happens if you don’t prune them? Well unpruned fruit trees still have fruit, in fact they have lots of fruit but it’s small and pretty tasteless.   Pruned trees have bigger and better fruit. Pruning lets in more sunlight so fruit ripens better. It also improves air circulation by getting rid of dead, diseased and badly placed branches, helping control pests and diseases. Most importantly it keeps trees small so that you can reach the fruit without climbing ladders and risking injury from a fall.

Perhaps the most popular fruit trees in our gardens after lemons are apples and pears. Members of the same family they are similar in how they grow and bear fruit.   If you have just planted some trees that you bought this year, then prune them now. Cut them back hard to about six buds. The idea is to get them fruiting while they are small to slow down excessive growth.

This spring and summer you’ll get new shoots. The second year the buds on these shoots will turn into short, pointed ‘spurs’. After the third growing season these spurs will bear fruit and continue for many years.

With time these fruit spurs grow more gnarled, twisted and overcrowded, especially pears. It’s easier to see these in winter so prune them now. Thin out overcrowded spurs so you have at least 10cm between them. Cut unwanted spurs off flush with the branch. Reduce gnarly old spurs you plan to keep so they have just one or two claws.

If you have an old neglected tree it may take a while but you’ll be rewarded for your effort. It may be worth reducing its height also so you can reach the fruit

Lots of people think they have only a small garden so they can’t have fruit trees. But small gardens are great! Just train young trees to grow flat against a fence or wall. Its called espalier and it looks really fabulous.   During summer tip prune them and tie the branches into line. There are also dwarf varieties available such as Pinkabelle, a dwarf Pink Lady apple.

Another trick for small gardeners is to train your trees as pyramids. Prune to a single stem and branches that radiate outwards so they look like Christmas trees.

Great thing is your trees will remain fairly small once they are trained. When you tie the branches out horizontally, it changes the hormones in the branch and they virtually stop growing. You just get the fruit spurs bearing fruit each year which is just what you want!

Keep the fruit spurs trimmed to one or two buds and about 10cm spacing between spurs.   In November cut back new vertical growing shoots to two or three buds from the main branch.

If you have a larger garden you can let your apple and pear trees grow a bit larger. The more horizontal a branch grows the more flowers and fruit it has (same is true for climbing roses!) So don’t cut off all those long upright branches just get them to grow outwards. Either tie them down with long strings or tie weights to the ends so they bend down over a season.

Get rid of all debris and rake up around your tree to remove diseased material and over-wintering pests. Good hygiene will improve the health of your garden.