Pruning fruit trees can feel really intimidating! I remember the first time I cut a branch off a fruit tree. I was convinced I’d just killed it. It turns out that pruning trees is a very important tool in the gardener’s toolkit. Replacing old wood with new wood is a natural process for a tree. This wood replacement happens through wind, too much fruit breaking limbs, etc. A tree is designed to respond to pruning by generating new, healthy growth. As you prune while trees are dormant (usually in the winter in North America), you’ll want to focus your pruning on what are called the “5 D’s” of winter pruning. Be sure to use a pair of quality pruning shears to prune off any wood that is: dead, dying, damaged, diseased, or deformed.
Dead and Dying
Wood that is dead and dying should be pruned off without thinking twice. Cutting already dead wood is probably the easiest cut for most gardeners, as the wood is already dead. Nobody feels guilty pruning off a dried twig or branch. One way to visually tell if a branch is dead or dying is whether or not the branch is flexible. A healthy branch has some flex to it, while a dead branch is very rigid and brittle. A dead branch can often looks gray and shriveled. This IS one of the more crucial cuts, because dead wood is a common entrance for bugs to enter the tree. Keeping your tree free of dead or dying wood is an important step in keeping your tree healthy.
Wood can become damaged in many ways, often through some sort of apparent trauma. Leaving damaged wood on your tree is an invitation for trouble. Damaged wood can allow pathogens to enter the tree’s system. Boring insects can use a damaged section of a tree as an opportunity to set up shop. Damaged wood, as sad as it is to remove, should be pruned off right away to allow other healthy wood to grow in its place.
Diseased wood should scare most people straight. If your tree has a disease, it is IMPERATIVE that you cut this diseased wood off. Left unchecked, the pathogens can travel from the currently affected parts to the healthy parts of the plant’s system. There are many of diseases which affect different types of trees. These diseases range from devastating “fire blight” in apples and pears, to “bacterial canker” in peach and nectarine. When removing diseased limbs, there are 2 main things to keep in mind:
Cut a few inches below the visible diseased area
A disease will often be found further into the tree than is visible from the outside. When pruning off a diseased limb, cut a few inches below the visibly diseased area to ensure you removed all the diseased wood.
Sterilize your shears between cuts, and between trees
Plant pathogens are like human pathogens, in that they can travel from subject to subject through contact. In the case of a tree, the disease travels on the pruning shears. When you cut a diseased tree, you must sterilize your shears between cuts, or you risk spreading the disease to other branches on the tree. This is especially true when moving from one tree to the next. Any type of pathogen that makes its way onto your shears from a cut will affect other limbs or trees if not sterilized with bleach, Lysol, or a number of other sterilizing substances.
When tending to fruit trees, you want to train the tree so it will support long-term healthy production of fruit. A deformed limb will not benefit the structure over time, so it makes the most sense to prune it early. These deformities may compound and have unintended consequences if left to continue growing. Remove this type of wood and allow more healthy wood to grow in its places.
“Just Make The Cut”
Tom Spellman (of YouTube gardening fame) says “If you’re wondering whether or not you should make the cut; just make the cut”. He has recognized that beginner gardeners are often apprehensive about cutting a branch. The truth is that trees are resilient, and we have the privilege of encouraging them to produce excellent fruit. By taking a principled stand and making those winter pruning cuts, you set your tree up to happily produce for the long term.