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If pruning is done wrong, all sorts of problems can erupt – from ugly, stumpy looking trees to crazy shooting growth on every remaining branch to, yep, you guessed it: a dead tree.
Proper pruning is a little bit art and a little bit science. Plus, it takes a fine touch, a lot of muscle, and often quite a bit of patience. Learning the basics of fine pruning before you begin working on your trees isn't always possible. Sometimes we realize our mistakes after we have already butchered a branch. Other times, we inherit mal-pruned orchards that need renovation. In many cases, fixing those bad cuts or breaks and the aftermath that follows them is possible with a bit of TLC, a lot of patience, and a whole lot of hard work.
Recently, I caught up with Theresa Loe, Co-Executive Producer of Growing a Greener World and owner of the popular urban homesteading blog, Living Homegrown®. She had just finished a two-week orchard renovation expedition and had a lot of freshly gained insights into fixing bad pruning cuts. A short time ago, her family purchased a 130-year-old farmstead on which an orchard filled with apples, cherries, plums, pears and other fruiting trees grow. The trees had been carefully pruned for most of their long lives until about 20 years ago when the prior organic caretaker passed away. Since then, the old but still-producing trees have been randomly chopped, hacked and otherwise mismanaged. That is, until Theresa took over.
When Theresa began exploring the trees, she found "Many of the trees had been topped and as a result, they sent up tons of water sprouts." Water sprouts, also known as suckers, are rapid growth that usually occurs in response to cuts that remove the tip bud from a branch or tree (aka topping cuts). These resulting sprouts sap energy from the rest of the plant, add potentially dangerous weight to remaining branches, and rarely are they productive.
In addition to facing topped trees, she found "The trees had been chopped in random areas (probably to reduce size) with no consideration for where the next bud was. So many of the tips were dead wood. There were also a lot of dead branches crossing through the centers that had never been pruned out. A lot of branches were broken because they had too much weight in the past - no one had thinned their heavy loads. Luckily there was no disease showing. The trees were very overgrown and so the fruit was not getting enough sun to develop flavors."
One of the first rules in fixing a situation like this is to remove the hard-to-cut dead wood. "I used a Fiskars saw for hand cutting out the larger branches. It was very easy for me to grip and cut easily through the wood...even the dead wood, which as you know can be harder to saw," Theresa tells us.
On any pruning job, removing the dead is a good place to start as it will uncover the living structure of the tree and help reveal the next steps to take. Once the dead material is removed, the next step of taking out broken and crossing branches is much easier to do. Completing this not only makes the tree more aesthetically pleasing and healthier, but it will also allow more light into the interior of the tree, resulting in better and tastier fruit production.
Unfortunately, when trees have been mismanaged for years, it can take many more years to finish the renovation work. In Theresa's orchard, "Most of the trees (especially the stone fruit trees like the plums) are on a 3 year plan. I couldn't cut too much in one session or I risked over exciting the tree - and only getting vegetative growth with no fruit." Many trees will respond to renovation cuts – even good ones – by putting on a lot of new growth. So, balancing how much we take out in any one year is important. Keeping our reductions on older trees like these to no more than a quarter of living material – don't include the dead stuff in your percentage – is a good rule of thumb. Yes, that means you may leave some water sprouts on your tree each pruning season for a few years, but with patience over the course of a few years, it is possible to correct nearly all of the old bad cuts.
Old orchards can produce some amazing fruits rarely seen at market. And, their gnarled old forms may capture your heart – even if they have been badly pruned and wear you down during long days pruning on cold, wet wintery days. On her new-to-her homestead, Theresa is smitten by a few unique trees: "My favorite tasting tree is one of the only trees that were still labeled. It is a Spitzenberg, and it is delicious! But the tree that most touched my heart is a little tree we called our "Harry Potter" tree because it looks magical. It is completely hollow and has gnarled branches - and yet, it still makes apples!"
Even if you are facing a renovation job that involves trees other than orchard varieties, the basics remain the same: Don't top. Remove dead twigs first. Then, take out crossing, broken and rubbing branches next. And remove suckers and water sprouts, but only take out about a quarter of the living material each year. Shaping cuts are the last thing to do. You may yearn to shorten and shape first, but don't give into that desire or you will be faced with many winters of renovation work to fix those first bad cuts.