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Basics of Orchard Care

It's that time of year again! (Actually, it's a little bit later than I'd like.)

Battling pneumonia this winter put me 'behind schedule' getting the orchard trimmed. We're a little under time pressure now but not in the worry zone yet.

When we moved to this property, the orchard had been left to grow unrestricted for a minimum of 5 years. It has taken us approximately that long to get the trees to a place where we are doing regular and routine maintenance trimming rather than massive catch-up. The one exception is "Tree #1" who has gotten some solid trimming but never a broad one. Tree 1 is just a very large, beautiful apple tree that I cannot reach the upper branches of even on our tallest ladder. I'm calling in some help for Tree 1 this year.

We have added some juvenile trees over the past 3 years, and may make the decision this year to cut and replace an older/ailing tree or two.

Part of our orchard, late winter. All except the pear tree have been shaped in an "open center" growth.

Here's some basics of caring for your fruit trees. I learn more each year, so hardly an expert, but I hope this gets you started!

As I am in New England, approximately zone 5a but with extra mountaintop exposure, these tips here might not apply to much more southern regions and the warmer climate types of fruit trees.

WHY trim my trees?

  • Trimming improves air and sunlight exposure for healthier leaves and fruit, while also reducing the ability of pests and fungus to proliferate.

  • Trimming can aid in speeding or slowing the growth of the tree and in turn increase the healthy fruit yields.

  • Trimming can also remove diseased/decaying portions of the tree to promote health and longevity.

When should I trim my fruit trees?

Trim fruit trees when the tree is dormant, ideally.

Dormancy (in New England) begins after fall leaf drop and the temperatures have significantly dropped with consistency, then lasts until temperatures have consistently risen once more in spring. Many orchard keepers trim early January through early March depending upon our lovely weather patterns.

'Water shoots' may be clipped off any time of the year, but more on that below.

A What Shoot?

"Water shoots", or sprouts, are produced by fruit trees every year. They generally emerge vertically from much older growth wood. They will not bear fruit unless they have been left to grow for several years in a row where at that point they have become part of the woody canopy.

When to trim shoots comes down to the theory of growth desired for the tree.

Trimming the tree very hard in the dormant season will cause the tree to produce many more shoots the following year. This is a natural response to the tree being cut. If you are desiring lots of growth for the tree, then select some good looking/larger/or perfectly placed shoots to keep and trim all the rest, stimulating your tree to grow out more. Removing too much may prevent the tree from photosynthesizing adequately, so be conscious and selective. Keep any shoots that are growing well and in a direction that may later become a useful branch/extension of the tree.

If you are not desiring lots of growth for this tree and just doing a maintenance trim, it is better to remove unwanted shoots during the summer months, being mindful to not remove too much of the leaf canopy. Remember that leaves make tree food!

This image shows two shoots, two previously trimmed shoots healing over, and a clear example of the "collar" referenced below under "Proper Cuts" section.

What should I remove?

Dead, heavily damaged, decayed branches should all be removed.

The underlying principle is to shape the tree in such a way that the canopy will receive maximum air and sun exposure.

The general rule of thumb is to remove up to 25% of a tree's canopy per year, but recall that the more you take the more likely it is the tree will go into shoots-growth overdrive the next year. Much easier to stay on top of routine trimming than it is to recover an orchard like we have done.

Over time, if not right from the beginning, you will want to remove branches which cross over/under others. Also, any branches which head straight up (like a shoot that has been left to grow too long), straight down (likely the result of injury or pressure when young) or that curve back toward the center of the tree.

High density orchards are often trimmed to create a strong central leader with much smaller sideways growth. Our orchard has been trimmed with the open center method. There are variances on both, but all methods are used to promote open, airy, sunny trees with good fruiting ability and pest resistance.

A branch that broke, and must be removed. There may or may not be rot further down the branch. Remove what is necessary.

Tree biosecurity?!

Yep, it's a thing.

Tools, especially when traveling from one property to another, should be cleaned and disinfected prior to each use. Just like with livestock, trees are susceptible to pests and diseases which can travel on equipment and clothing. This can occur even on your own property.

And HOW do I remove things?

Use the appropriate tool for the job:

  • Hand pruners are only appropriate for wood under 3/4" diameter. Using a hand pruner on a larger shoot will result in a poor cut, usually crushed wood instead of sliced wood. Crushed wood won't readily heal.

  • Pruning saws are generally used for branches 4" or less in diameter.

  • Electric or gas powered saws may be needed for branches significantly larger than 4".

This is a very bad cut that has led to tree decay. It may eventually cost the entire tree.

Proper cuts:

  • Cuts should ideally be made at a joint or collar where the tree can more easily heal or compartmentalize its injury. See below.

  • Cuts should be as clean as possible, without jagged portions or bits of the branch left behind.

  • Cuts should never face upwards towards the sky, as the picture above shows.

  • Above is an example of a poor cut we made before understanding the previous concept. See how the tree has not been able to heal the cut edges and now the tree is beginning to rot below here? This spells future trouble, as in likely a tree we will need to replace sooner than later.

  • And below here is an example of a proper cut that is healing.

There are much more advanced concepts to learn about caring for your trees, such as understanding new growth vs old growth, fruit vs leaf buds, managing pests or fungus, and specific needs or variances in types of fruit trees. I hope these basics got you started, or at least pointed in the direction for further research topics.

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