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So, as we approach the question of “when should I prune my fruit tree or shrub?” it is important to keep in mind that the answer likely differs based on where you live, the age of your plant, type of plant, disease and pest potentials, and more.
In climates that undergo a distinct period of winter dormancy, you’ll find yourself doing a lot of pruning in the winter. Trees like apples and pears, shrubs like blueberries, and cane-growers like raspberries are generally pruned in winter while the plants are experiencing dormancy.
Dormancy refers to the state plants enter when sunlight shines weakly and briefly each day and when the weather is harsh, cold and windy. To prepare for these harsh conditions, many edible fruiting plants drop their leaves in autumn and persist through winter bare to the bark. Once plants have shed their leaves and the chance of warm weather has passed, pruning season is open – from around the end of November until the early weeks in March, varying somewhat by region.
Pruning while plants are dormant – particularly deciduous plants - is relatively easy because the branches are laid bare. There are no pesky leaves to get in the way, so figuring out which branches are dead or suckering or rubbing or broken is much simpler. Tackle those first and get them out of the way. Then you’ll easily see the best remaining structure of your plants.
Remember: Don’t tackle your dormant pruning jobs on days when the temperatures have dipped to at or below the freezing mark. During a freeze, it is easy to badly damage plants while pruning.
When trimming fruit trees like apples, cherries and pears, take a look at the stems up close. Fruit will form on the stubby little branches you see forming all along mature branches; these are called “spurs”. If you remove spurs, you will remove your plant’s fruiting potential. Also, if you remove too many young, spur-less branches, you will reduce the number of future spurs the tree may form. In most cases, trees like these will send out new branches each spring. These new branches – called vegetative growth – are unlikely to form any fruiting spurs in their first year of growth. However, in the following year that vegetative growth is likely to sprout some new fruiting spurs. Determining how much new vegetative growth to remove each year quickly reminds gardeners that pruning is both a science and an art form. If in doubt, try to keep the volume you remove from your tree to no more than 25%. Too, keep in mind that fruiting branches closest to the ground will be the easiest to harvest. The ones high up in the tree may end up going to the birds or require special equipment to pick.
Before you decide to do your entire fruit pruning in winter – ahead of the growth surge, be sure to check with your local fruit societies or nurseries to find out if there are any disease issues of concern. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, fungal infections that spread readily in splashing water plague peach, plum, cherry and apricot trees. And, it is easy for gardeners to pick up the fungal spores on their wet pruning shears and spread the disease around the tree. For this reason, many choose to prune these trees when it is dry in mid-summer. Yes, it is harder to see what you’re doing, but making cuts when it is dry can make the difference in having a healthy tree or not.
Need help tackling your dormant raspberries and blueberries? Get specific tips here.
Want to get better pollination? Putting up an Orchard Mason Bee box may make all the difference. Getting your supplies in winter and putting them out in the garden while the tree is dormant should help these fruit tree lovers hatch and forage your trees just at the right time!
Need help with other trees or disease questions? Check out CityFruit.org, which is dedicated to putting urban fruit to good use rather than letting food forests and good food go to waste.