Pruning

Fruit-bearing plants need regular pruning. It keeps the plants in bounds, attractive-looking, healthy, and — perhaps most importantly — helps them be more productive.

Always use clean, sharp tools when you prune. Clean, because you don't want to spread disease, and sharp, because blunt cutters mash and crush stems and branches. And always use the right tool for the job; applying a hand-held clipper to a thick branch is frustrating and foolish (Chapter 5 can fill you in on tools).

Finally, if any of this sort of maintenance is too difficult, too dangerous, or too time-consuming, consider scaling back your plans or hiring qualified help. Whatever you do, don't let the problem go. A neglected fruit tree or berry patch is a sorry sight, not to mention hard work to reclaim.

Here's the general rule: Prune fruit plants when they're dormant. You're better able to see what you're doing without a lot of foliage and so forth in the way, both in terms of shaping the plant and making sure you cut right above a bud. You also get little or no sap bleeding. And when growth starts up, the plant should grow as you plan and direct.

Figure 15-4:

Three common fruit-tree training methods.

Figure 15-4:

Three common fruit-tree training methods.

Tree fruits

A crop of tree fruits can be heavy, so shape a tree from an early age so it has a strong framework that can bear the weight. That said, do no more pruning on a young tree than is totally necessary, or you risk delaying its first crop.

Scaffold limbs are evenly spaced, come out from the main trunk at wide angles, and over time have a spiral arrangement around the trunk. Take out branches that crowd, cross, or shade others, right at the trunk (leave no stubs, in other words).

In later years, do an annual pruning to maintain this early form. Cut to reduce the fruit load and stimulate new shoot growth. How much should you cut? It depends on the size and heft of the particular fruit and the bearing habit of the tree. So read up in more detail on your particular tree or get the advice of a more experienced fruit grower.

Apples, pears, and other tree fruit often have June drop, in which immature fruit fall from the tree. This natural fruit loss is a reminder to thin the fruit. Too many fruit clustered too closely together don't ripen well, nor do they reach their ideal size. Thin so you have 6 inches between fruits. Remember that pruning and thinning are harder on you than on the plant.

A grafted fruit tree is one where the top part of the tree (called the scion) is grafted or joined to the rooting portion of the plant called a stock or root-stock. The rootstock of the tree determines its vigor and growth habit (full sized or dwarf) while the scion determines its flowering and fruiting characteristics. By grafting you're able to get a desired result -like a dwarf growing tree with a strong, vigorous roots system that bears large, flavorful fruit.

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Shrub fruits

Fruits that grow on bushes need to be prevented from becoming crowded; a tangle is difficult to prune, tricky to harvest from, and more prone to diseases and pests. You don't have to do much the first season or two, but in subsequent years, you have to make an annual habit out of thinning out the older wood (older branches, older canes). This pruning makes way for the new shoots, which, believe me, are always coming on. If you see a lot of new shoots, you may even have to thin out some of them. Figure 15-5 shows how to prune raspberry bushes; you can apply this method to most other shrub fruits.

Some berry plants produce fruit on first-year canes, some on second-year canes, so be careful that you don't cut out all the productive canes in your zeal to control the patch. You can find out which kind your berry bushes are either by simply observing or by asking when you purchase the plants.

Figure 15-5:

Raspberries should be pruned so that they don't grow together too densely. Dense bushes produce less fruit.

Figure 15-5:

Raspberries should be pruned so that they don't grow together too densely. Dense bushes produce less fruit.

The normal bramble life cycle of many shrub fruits is to produce a vegetative cane (primocane) in the first year; it overwinters, becomes a fruit-producing cane (floricane) the following year, and then dies. So your training becomes a cyclical matter of supporting these stems, encouraging them to stand up and trail outward along the wire, and removing them at ground level when they're through at the end of their second year. You can use cloth ties or just guide the fast-growing, lax, thorny stems.

Vine fruits

How you prune grapes, hardy kiwi, and other vining fruits depends on the sort of support you've chosen for them and how much space you allow them to fill. At the outset (the year you plant), cut back rather drastically to a few buds. This trim channels energy into growth of one or two main stems or "trunks."

Subsequent side branches, evenly spaced off the main trunk, are called cordons and are considered more or less permanent. Often, the more of these, the better — it makes for a fuller and more productive vine in the long run. So give the plant good care (regular water, fertilizer, and so on) in its first season or two so you can encourage plenty of cordons. Off of these come the third tier of branches, known as fruiting arms. These structures get a season to produce and then should be cut back somewhat or all the way back to the originating cordon in order to stimulate new ones and a fresh crop. That's it. Not as hard or complex as you thought, eh?

If you don't prune a vine fruit each year, it can soon grow longer and higher until the fruit you want is far out of reach. To bring it back down into range, all you need to do is identify and cut back to a main trunk and some evenly spaced cordons; cut back while the plant is dormant.

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