Prune Boldly!

Although it seems like most of the U.S. just had, has, or will shortly have snow on the ground, this time of year is ideal for pruning fruit trees and vines. I am no pruning expert, but the house where I live in Lyon happens to have a nice established small orchard, so I’m brushing up on my pruning knowledge and skills.

A few apple trees.

A few apple trees.

While in Italy, I had the opportunity to help a farmer prune some of his orchard trees, including some citrus plants I’d never seen before. With limited shared language, he instructed me on pruning by pointing quickly at each shoot on the tree, declaring whether it stayed or not. Very straightforward. By observing his selection process, I began to feel more confident about something that has always made me a bit nervous.

Although everything you prune has slightly different preferences and tendencies, the basic concepts are usually transferable between species. The goal (with orchard plants) is to cultivate plants that produce ample, accessible fruit. Although there is often some aesthetic consideration, as with ornamentals, the primary aims of pruning edible fruit trees are more utilitarian.

Branches that rub one another or interfere with the tree (usually) should go. Most people also want to keep their fruit-bearing trees and vines relatively close to the ground. In the photo of apple trees above, you can see how the new shoots–the thin ones sticking directly upwards–have been discouraged for years; the old growth of the trees is much shorter. Only since the trees have been more or less abandoned have all the crazy young shoots been allowed to grow.



These kiwi plants are–as far as I can tell–pretty healthy, but also pretty crazy. They’ve become so ensnarled that pruning is going to be difficult. Although you can usually prune quite a bit from a well-established tree if you do it judiciously, my worry with pruning is always that I will take away so much that the plant will basically shut down. This can happen.

And there are other considerations from what I’ve mentioned above. When you cut a tree, it will be encouraged to send out new shoots there. As I’ve posted about before, pollarding is a common practice in Europe that is sometimes used to develop specific kinds of wood, such as thin flexible shoots for use in weaving. Other forms of pruning are not so severe, but the effect on the plants is similar.

Below, I’ve sketched the four most commonly useful pruning tools I know of. What you need really depends on what kind of plant you have, but no matter what, make sure your blades are sharp! It’s frustrating and damaging to the tree to tear off limbs rather than making a clean cut, and you’re more likely to have a flukey injury if you’re struggling with your tools. Please note that hedge trimmers (A) are best for bushy hedge material and should only be used for very tiny branches in a pinch (when no shears are available).

(a) loppers, (b) shears or hand trimmer, (c) long-handed trimmer, (d) pruning saw

(a) hedge trimmers/loppers, (b) shears or hand trimmer, (c) long-handed trimmer, (d) pruning saw

Pruning, frankly, scares me a little. It’s counter-intuitive. Cut this living thing to make it grow better–right, like that’s going to work. But it does, and it’s necessary to maintaining useful orchard trees. Although it is possible to prune a tree poorly, leaving too much wild growth on trees can also cause them to become unbalanced and more likely to catch wind and snow and break branches in heavy weather conditions. In the spirit of Martin Luther, PRUNE BOLDLY!

But to help shore up your confidence on the subject (and provide more information than I can give with authority), here are a few resources:

And a great pruning book: The Pruning Book (Lee Reich) 


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