Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Working in the orchard

Looking down the grassy-aisle between rows of trees. My quince trees experienced a lot of fire-blight strikes last year because of the high temperatures and humidity when they were blooming.

It is an understandable misconception that "dwarf" trees will stay small without pruning.

It IS true that they grow out of their allocated space more slowly than a semi-dwarf or standard sized tree. Due to their heavy fruiting, they might extend their canopy six-inches in each direction every year while a standard tree might push 24", especially if the grower is trying to contain the tree in a smaller space than the rootstock and the inherent vigor of the scion variety want.

Never-the-less, dwarf trees will keep pushing the envelope out and up.

The upward growth is particularly troubling because that takes the prime fruit out of the picker's reach while leaving shaded, inferior fruit closer to the ground.

It is necessary for the fruit grower to remove wood from the upper reaches of his trees to ensure the lower branches can produce prime fruit in the pickable range.

Lately, I have been heading out the central leader of my pear trees at about 10' and spreading lateral branches where warranted.

My apple trees are a bit of a grab-bag with many different root-stock and scion combinations. Among my failures in the 2022 growing season was that my GoldRush produced much fruit that ripened early (in the upper reaches) and fell to the ground and it bore other fruit that ripened much later...in the shadier parts of the canopy.

I set about fixing that problem. My basic procedure for pruning is to look at the tree for a bit and then figure out which large branches I can remove to make the tree more horizontal and less vertical. It is amazing how much wood you can remove and how close you can get to the ideal by using a chainsaw to take out three or four good-sized branches.

Then I use loppers to remove the older fruiting branches that gravity dragged downward into the shady, Stygian depths of the canopy. When confronted with multiple, well-positioned branches I pick the few that span the space in the evenest way.

Finally, I step back and reduce the tree's wing-span by shortening up the branches that define the tree's drip-line.

The mess does not photograph well because of the patchy, melting snow. I am pulling quite a bit of wood out of the orchard.

Ideally, the fruit-grower will do this frequently enough that the lower structure that he leaves will have received enough sun through the previous growing season to have an ample amount of viable flower-buds. No sunlight means very few flowerbuds. Letting the chore go undone for too long means that the fruit-grower will have a poor yield the year after major maintenance pruning. Better to have frequent maintenance and not face the prospect of a year with no fruit.

In a perfect world, each tree will set as much fruit as it can ripen, less a little bit. A tree that tries to ripen too much fruit is susceptible to winter-kill. And each apple or pear or peach would have the same amount of sun hitting the same number of leaves supporting each fruit.

It is crucial to remember that the tree you walk away from after pruning is not the same tree that will be intercepting sunlight in July and August. The tree in mid-summer will have pushed many, feathery side branches to capture more sunlight and fill in the voids you left in the framework of the tree. 

One rule of thumb is to take out enough branches so you can lob a basketball through the tree's canopy...maybe five times out of every seven-to-ten attempts. The nice thing about this rule-of-thumb is that it is self correcting for tree size. Larger trees end up with their branches farther apart while smaller trees have their branches closer together.

Another part of winter tree-care is to strip the vines out of the trees that might have escaped your notice in the summer. Or perhaps you saw them but were afraid you would lose too much fruit if you yanked them out of the trees. Now is the time to fix that.

And while you are at it, trim any brush surrounding the orchard that has grown tall enough to shade the fruit trees.

As a side-note, I have been encouraging patches of horseradish and rugosa rose beneath my trees since I want to have a strong population of parasitoid wasps. These two plants supply a steady source of nectar and pollen (two weeks for the horseradish and then two or three more with the rugosa rose) shortly after the apple trees blossom and can increase native parasitoid wasp longevity and reproductive success by 300%.

Later in the season I have Motherswort volunteering (i.e. a weed) and white clover growing in the grassy avenues between the trees.

One plant that is a HUGE magnet for parasitoid wasps is rhubarb. Alas, the flowering spikes only seems to be attractive to them for a few days.

All of these plants, horseradish, rugosa rose, motherswort, white clover and rhubarb are short enough to not compete with your trees for sunlight.

That can make an astounding difference over the course of multiple generations in terms of the biological pressure protecting your fruit against  insects that want to lay their eggs on it.

Bonus image

Guess the state
Hat tip Lucas


  1. Highly informative post. Don't you get a lot of water shoots after aggressive pruning? What would you suggest for an older orchard (trees 40-50 yrs. old) that doesn't bear well if at all anymore? After reading your post, I'm wondering if the trees are getting too much shade from neighboring trees that have matured. They have been pruned regularly. To minimize spraying, what is the bare minimum I need to spray, a dormant oil? Sorry for all the questions but I do enjoy when you post about your farming endeavors.

    1. Tough questions.

      By all means, cut the neighboring trees that are shading the fruit trees.

      It is heresy to say this, but I have seen old apple trees produce mostly good fruit with zero spraying. They were in Brethren, Michigan and were growing on blow-sand from inland sand dunes. That is, they were very nutrient starved. The other factor is that the deer population was very, very heavy. There was no wind-falls on the ground as they got eaten every night by the deer.

      I puzzled over this a great deal. It turns out the protein content of fruit is influenced by the amount of nitrogen in the soil. Very fertile soil has lots of nitrogen which results in relatively high-protein fruit. Meat is protein. Worms are meat. Very low nitrogen means that the fruit is not conducive to well nourished worms.

      If I were trying to optimize the amount of marketable fruit using the minimum amount of conventional spray, I would vote for a spraying of Imidan when the very largest apples were the size of the last joint of your pointer finger. That would give you the maximum coverage for Plum Curculio.

      Incidentally, there are now some relatively effective organic treatments. One of them is a clay-based spray that covers the fruit such that when the bug walks across it they cannot tell that it is fruit. Apparently bugs have taste buds in their feet. Who knew?

      Some trees have water shoots that can be easily yanked by hand by briskly pulling them back toward the trunk. In some places this is considered "best practice" because you usually get most of the latent buds near the base of the water shoot. If you have the hand-strength for it, it is a very, very fast way to strip water-shoots off of a tree. Ease of yanking water-shoots varies by time of year.

  2. Thanks ERJ. This was super informative. I have at least one walnut and one apple to prune at my parents' place and virtually zero experience in pruning.

  3. That’s obviously the State of Happiness. I have a buddy that used to raise whitetail deer. He’d feed them his own mix of Super Duper Deer food - and they grew enormous racks. Then he’d sell them to “hunting” operators. And people would pay big bucks to shoot these deer with “trophy racks”. Crazy business. I’m going to guess Pennsylvania.

  4. It is my understanding that Winter pruning is for health whereas Summer solstice pruning is the pruning that keeps a fruit tree small and manageable. See "Grow a Little Fruit Tree" by Ann Ralph.

    1. Pruning can accomplish many things. It can keep the tree size economical, control fruit-load so the tree does not tip into alternate bearing, enhance fruit quality by minimizing the fruit that sets inside the shady portions of the canopy. It can also promote leaf health as an "open" canopy dries out more quickly than a dense canopy.

      I have also seen comments regarding keeping the tree small by summer pruning.

  5. I was going to guess out west somewheres based on whats behind the scene.
    Yes, very informative article. I pruned my apples and peaches a couple weeks ago. Very unsure of myself, but I cut em up! They're ~5 years old, producing some flowers, but have yet to taste an apple, couple little ones formed, but never harvested. I got a backpack sprayer for Christmas this year, gonna douse the heck out of em!
    Interesting note about nitrogen - the chickens free range all over the orchard, leave their fertilizer everywhere.

    1. Fruit trees are like hair cuts. If you did not do a great job then you will get a chance to do it better in a little bit.

      Fruit trees are very forgiving. They don't read books or look up how it "should" be done on Google. By and large there are dozens of ways to prune fruit trees and they all work more-or-less.

  6. Holy Moly ! That is one helluva buck skull. I'm guessing Montana. That rack would blend in with the trees, lol.

    Appreciate the training us 'non-green thumb' persons in small scale backyard growing strategies, I'm learning something.

  7. The comment that came with the picture implied that the skull was found in Southern Ohio

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