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pruning concepts

Posted by Michael Phillips 
pruning concepts
March 10, 2013 02:30AM
I teach pruning, I write about pruning, I do pruning. So the notion of how to best present basic concepts intrigues me to no end. I'll share my language in hopes you share yours. The ability to "speak tree" in a way that humans understand (including moi) is at the heart of this.

My fundamental mantra has long been Framework first, then the thinning; lastly see the fruit and how it grows. By which I intend to always take my consciousness directly to the trunk -- and thus the scaffold structure -- in order to evaluate those "brilliant biggest" cuts first.

I rely totally on the concept of light space in determining the basis for any and all cuts. Does a given branch have sufficient photosynthesis space for buds and shoots to fully respond to sunlight in order to create all it's capable of becoming? This thought alone launches fundamental decisions.

How about time travel as a core pruning concept? I stand here in March 2013 making cuts yet I also stand here in 2014 and 2017 and even 2022 seeing the direct results from particular choices. I can also go back in time, grasping why this branch now resulted from that shoot then. Always invariably in response to available light.

Then there's diameter based puning. Not my concept by any means but a surefire way to judge a lateral that has overly dominated the scene for enough years now. This is "the rule" for working in the top zone of a freestanding tree and absolutely throughout dwarf trees from top to bottom.

How about you? What is the language of snip that guides your pruning decisions?

Lost Nation Orchard
Zone 4b in New Hampshire
Re: pruning concepts
March 10, 2013 07:04PM
I think we have talked about this one before, Michael...

On a large, standard tree, my first criteria for pruning is: "Make yourself comfortable". This means easy access to the tree, branches spreaded in such a way as to make climbing the tree easy, and organizing a comfortable seat near the top of the tree. The idea being that a tree pruned this way will be safer, easier to work on, and also easier to harvest. In other words, I will be ready to sacrifice on the productivity of the tree (in the short term) to improve on its accessibility and comfort. And in the long term, I think this strategy pays, and I recover quite quickly the initial loss of productivity.

And finally, if you get more pleasure and less discomfort while working on your trees, isn't this worth a few apples?

Jolicoeur Orchard
Zone 4 in Quebec
Author, The New Cider Maker's Handbook
Re: pruning concepts
March 10, 2013 07:20PM
I fully concur, Claude. The past few days of pruning here I have been far more hard core about removing material close to the trunk- ie- fruiting spurs, various smaller growth, etc. Although I have always been teaching that a side benefit of wide spacing between whorls gives potential fruiting close to the trunk, it is always in the way. Since I have the help of my 10 yr old climbing to harvest, every last spur is crushed and every whip snapped, at a time of year I do not like pruning. I have always been a climbing pruner (my only mishaps have involved ladders), and a crowded system is problematic. Most of this falls in place with the generally understood system of wider spacing of limbs (3-5 branch whorls 3-4 feet apart) in a standard tree, but side branching and spurs may be better off a bit further out from the trunk than I first thought. This idea of a happy ladder is I think healthy for both the tree and the person.

Walden Heights Nursery & Orchard
Zone 3 in Vermont

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 03/10/2013 07:23PM by Todd Parlo.
Re: pruning concepts
March 11, 2013 02:15AM
I like it guys ... and indeed a good reminder. Let's add happy ladder placement to the list of things to be thinking about as you prune. This applies to the free standing tree, all the more so as you allot production height. Keep those pruning directives coming. We're all (mostly) out there now thinking about particulars. Put it to voice: What are the driving directives behind your pruning style?
Re: pruning concepts
March 24, 2013 12:48AM
They didn't like me very well in the commercial orchards of Eastern Washington.I started out being a picker. After a few bloody years and learning the concepts of pruning , I began breaking branches during harvest so they would Have to be pruned. They didnt like me to prune ladder sets.. they wanted production. The heavy use of insecticides and fungicides afforded leaving very bushy trees .. no open centers .. no ladder sets.

Anything I couldn't reach from the very top step of a 10 foot ladder got broken, to be pruned properly in the winter.
Finally I get to do it my way ! No blood, no broken branches , healthy organic trees .. and so pretty !!

I also prune for potential... leaving a few choice suckers headed in the right direction , just in case old tired fruitwood needs to be replaced or accidental breakage .. you can always make those thinning cuts later down the road if needed.
I am finding out also that if you head back those suckers to 4-5 buds instead of just tipping them back , fruiting spurs develope more quickly .. by a year anyway.

For some reason I prune for an open center rather that 1 central leader. It's just easier for me to prune ladder sets, more openness , more potential ..more better for me.

Bayhead Farms
Zone 7a in Washington

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 03/24/2013 01:04AM by Paul Townsend.
Re: pruning concepts
March 24, 2013 11:28PM
Knowing that I am in the midst of folks enamored of full-sized, vigorous trees, I would like to point out something that has not been mentioned - the problem of the ladder (not just its placement).

Back in the hoary mists of time when I managed a 25-acre orchard, most of the trees were M7, and still small enough to pick completely from the ground for the first few years. The first year we introduced ladders into the mix, production per picker started dropping. By the 10th year, even though probably less than a fifth of the crop needed a ladder, just dragging the darn things around and the few sets they had to make cut their efficiency to 2/3 to 3/4 of what it had been while the trees were small. We still paid by the bushel, but we had unhappy pickers. Unhappy pickers try to rush as much as they can. Not a good situation.

So, were I to re-enter the orchard business, my #1 pruning priority would not be pruning to leave ladder placements, but would be planting and pruning trees that I could avoid ever having to drag a ladder into. Not strictly pruning, I know, but your choices in pruning start at planting time.

Jim Gallott
New Haven, VT USDA Zone 5a
Re: pruning concepts
April 11, 2013 08:42PM
Yes, I have always made sure there was/is an easy way in to each tree, and an easy way up.

I also do my best to keep 3 to 4 feet between any two scaffold/branches going in the same direction. And I used to aim for a scaffold/branch per tier in four directions, yet have since learned that three directions is adequate and makes for one whole lot less pruning when the side branches start growing together.

When I started with newly planted trees in 1986, rather than just pruning the old farm orchard and the wild trees, I was too kind and left more branches. Then a dozen years ago, or so, a bear did some harvesting on our 1986 Red Harralson (great winter keeper and very hardy).... when I was done pruning off the broken branches, I noted that s/he had actually done the breaks/cuts I was afraid to do. So much more light and air was able to come in to the canopy... and the ones left were perfectly placed. What a gift! What a good lesson!

Morninglory Farm
Zone 3b* in Ontario
Re: pruning concepts
July 28, 2013 07:54PM
In California, M7 and M111 are not as vigorous as you growers with longer summer days up north. At our farms, we plant the higher vigor varieties (Ex: Jonagold and Fuji) on M7, and lower vigor varieties (Ex: Braeburn, Goldrush) on M111. Using this scheme, we can prune the trees back to 8' tall, and forego the use of ladders. Spacing is 8' x 16' on sandy loam, fertile soils. Ladders are a great way to lose money! In addition, our workers compensation insurance rate is significantly reduced, because they give us a discount for not using ladders, and organic farms must be economically viable, too.
And yes, it's true, I never write poems about our 8' tall trees.
Re: pruning concepts
July 28, 2013 11:27PM
I'm not sure that I'm enamoured about our full size trees...tho' I do love them quite dearly. I'm sure I would be just as enoamoured with a dwarf tree, like our plums. However, it's my understanding, and please correct me if I'm wrong, that dwarf and semi-dwarf trees cannot be relied upon to survive our winters. There simply would be nothing to pick, ladder or no ladder. So full sized trees it is, full sized trees they are... and yes, I can well imagine that shorter trees, and less ladder work would mean less time picking... Thanks for the edification. I can appreciate your dance better for your sharing.
As for longer days... that's the folks in BC, or even northern Washington. I think we're about the same latitude here in Ontario as northern California... which is further north than Santa Cruz.
Happy harvest season,

Cdn zone 3b

[Editor's Note: I can readily see how we veered into the big tree / little tree debate, and it's a good one, with plenty of opportunity to carry it over to Orchard Systems. This however is a discussion of what we each think about in particular when out pruning.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/29/2013 02:30AM by Michael Phillips.
Re: pruning concepts
August 10, 2015 08:38AM
Being totally inexperienced when I started I jumped on the ability to market smaller apples . Not realizing I was over taxing the trees which eventualy kicked them into bi-annual production . Following the suggestion in the , Apple Grower , of leaving some of the water sprouts to become producing wood . This is my third year of this practice , it should be an off year but I am going to have a good crop . One observation though both new and old spurs have developed " tendrils " ( right word I hope ) 12 to 18 inches long and it is on the end of these that I am getting my production . Many times there are three apples on these spurs and the stems seem to be interconnected . I can thin down to two but if I go for one it weakens the hold of the last one and I loose all three .
Re: pruning concepts
August 11, 2015 11:31PM

What varieties are you getting production on those 12- 18 inch shoots (tendrils are the twining growths on viney plants (undeveloped fruit tissue on grapes for instance). I never know what to call the smaller shoots that develop fruit either. Yours are longer and would point to tip bearing varieties because it is a shoot in my opinion. Weirder is the 6 inch-ish growth, which seems too long for a spur, too short to feel like a tip bearer's material.

I did not thinning this year for the first time ever, and I agree...oops. It works for us because we are cidering completely this season, but for those out there interested in good fruit, you can never thin too much. Hard pruning also makes thinning less intensive, but you do want a lot of leaves in the end, in proportional to fruit, so it still means thinning.

Walden Heights Nursery & Orchard
Zone 3 in Vermont
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