Winter Pruning: Apples and Pears
Come, let us plant the apple tree.
Cleave the tough greensward with the spade;
Wide let its hollow bed be made;
There gently lay the roots, and there
Sift the dark mould with kindly care,
And press it o’er them tenderly
As, round the sleeping infants feet,
We softly fold the cradle sheet;
So plant we the apple-tree.
William Cullen Byrant 1794-1878
William, a native of Massachusetts, who was considered an American nature poet and journalist, really did seem to love an apple tree. However, the poem above does not once mention the true joy of owning such a tree which of course is the winter prune.
The Winter Prune on an apple or pear tree, for me is one of the most rewarding tasks to undertake during the season. Whether it be a standalone tree, espalier or cordon trained, I take great pleasure shaping and finding that perfect balance between leaf, fruit, and structure.
To find this balance can be a tricky task, this guide will mainly be for bush or standard trees, I will though touch on the pruning of espalier and cordon also.
Firstly, why do we need to prune at all? Apples and pears pruned regularly will guarantee a good cycle of fruit bearing wood. Trees left to their own devices will eventually become less productive and congested with old and sometimes damaged branches, which in turn can lead to disease. The main goal is to create an open framework to help air circulate and fruiting buds thrive. The best time to prune is the dormant period, usually between leaf fall and bud burst late June to August.
When pruning, all tools used should be clean and free from debris and sap from previous pruning tasks and regularly wiped down with methylated spirits’ You will need a freshly sharpened pair of secateurs, loppers and a pruning saw, a sturdy step ladder if height is a factor and a rake, sacks, or wheelbarrow for the tidy up afterwards
Young laterals can be left unpruned to help with the development of fruit buds in their second year (Fruit will only grow on wood two years and older). However, please do remove these if two or more laterals are growing closer the 10-15cm (4-6in); when doing this pruning should be made where the lateral or side shoot joins the primary branch at the collar.
On a more mature tree, you may have to thin out spur systems (short, branched shoots) that have become congested. A spur system is predominantly where you will see fruit buds. Unlike the smaller slender, pointed leaf and growth buds, fruit buds by June/July are usually plump and round with a light downy appearance, these hold the flowers, which will eventually become fruit. The spur will be a cluster of these ready to pop fruit buds. Always try to remove less than thirty percent of spur growth and if possible, remove congested spur growth from the underside first, as fruit borne here may be inferior due to lack of light and take unnecessary energy from other areas of the tree.
On regularly maintained trees -
Begin as always by removing the 3 D’s - Dead, Diseased, and Damaged wood and anything that may be rubbing, or the weaker growth (anything less than pencil thickness probably won't be very productive over the coming year) from the previous growing season. While pruning now is also a good time to check your tree for diseases such as apple canker, lichens, and other growths. Although these may not damage a tree it can indicate other problems.
Reduce the previous year’s growth of each primary branch (main branch) by about one third, this growth can be identified by following back along the branch from the tip and noticing the colour change between new and old wood. Prune back to an outward facing bud to help reduce congestion in the future. This will help stimulate new branch and spur growth.
If regular pruning has not happened in a while, start by again removing the three D’s, rubbing, weaker new growth, water shoots and basal growth. However rather than getting to work reducing the primary branch and laterals, you will first need to open the centre of the tree. This can be done by strategically removing a few larger branches to the point of original growth with a sharp pruning saw, remember to take the weight out of it first by using your saw further up the branch. While doing this it is also advised to use the undercut/three cut method to reduce tearing of the bark or snapping of the limb. This is demonstrated in the picture.
If more than a few larger branches are to be removed, it would be best to keep reducing them back over the next few winters, too much hard pruning in one season can encourage even more vigorous regrowth.
Lastly condense the height and spread of any primary branches that have grown to large by cutting them back to a vigorous outward and upward facing branch, make sure the remaining branch is at least one third in diameter of the branch being removed.
The following fruiting season will see the crop depleted, but you should see this bulk up the following year, due to fruit being produced of second year wood.
When you have finished pruning, clear the area of debris by either chipping (after it has seasoned it will make a great mulch), burning in a garden incinerator or take to your local waste transfer station.
Quick Pruning Tips
- Always make sure any pruning equipment is clean (this can’t be stressed enough), sharp, and well maintained. This helps avoid spreading disease, bad cuts or tears to the plant and insures the longevity of your tools.
- Choose the right equipment for the task at hand. A rule of thumb is Secateurs cut up to one inch in diameter. Loppers cut 1-2inches in diameter. Pruning saws anything from 2inch and above. However, I would recommend anything over 5 inches should really be cut with either a bow or chain saw.
- All cuts should be made with the blade of either your secateurs or loppers closest to the growth bub to avoid tearing. You should position the blade about 5mm (0.5cm) above and outward facing growth bud. Then cut to a 45-degree angle to allow water to run off.
- Cuts made higher than 5mm (0.5cm) risk die back and should be cut lower. Cuts made at a steeper angle or too close to the growth bud both risk the bud dying.
Happy pruning, I hope you all enjoy it as much as I do. SM.
Things to do this Winter
The winter season is upon us and we are already seeing Jack Frost’s icy grip take hold of some very chilly mornings over the last couple of weeks. Now is the perfect time to get out and about and give overgrown shrubs the TLC they need after being wind battered during the autumnal months. It is also a good time to prune many types of fruit, this can include blackcurrants, apples (not espalier), pears and autumn fruiting raspberries, red currants, and gooseberries (please leave your soft fruit tree such as plums and cherries until the end of the next summer though, to help prevent silver leaf). You may also want to tackle certain shrubs and trees, not forgetting that all important rose garden.
The cold frosty mornings give real effect to hips left on the roses and seeds heads on plants such as perennials like ornamental grasses, Rudbeckia and Eryngium giganteum (sea holly), with their architectural rosette stabbing into the mornings frost or the pearlescent luminosity of the seed of the softer Lunaria annua (honesty)capturing the early morning sun. Not only do plants like this give structure to a garden during the winter months, they also provide a much-needed food source for birds and insects alike. These can all be cut back in spring when new growth begins.
If you prefer you garden with a splash more colour during this season, there are many more flowering plants and shrubs that will satisfy the craving. Hellebores are a must have in a garden this time of year, a personal favourite is Helleborus ‘Hannah blush’ with its light pink green throated flower and yellow stamen, almost giving it a sun-bleached antique look. Other plants to be considered to fill drab areas are crocus, winter Iris and for the more shady areas pair the pastel colours of the eastern cyclamen (Cyclamen coum) with snowdrop (Galanthus) varieties that flower at the later stage of the season. These delicate plants hold a promise of things to come with the onset of spring. For those who prefer the fragrance of summer to last, you can’t look much further than a cleverly placed witch hazel, try Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ with a blast of deep red foliage colour just before leaf drop in the autumn followed by spider like crimped, copper red, strongly scented flowers appear to decorate this tree during the mid to late winter months.
Match colour and fragrance with evergreen shrubs that add form and shape while most trees and shrubs overwinter, making this perfect time for evergreens to shine. Buxus and natives like the Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘golf ball’ topiary add interest while shrubs such as Camellia and Rhododendron buds are preparing to burst into life at the arrival of spring. Pyracantha varieties can be espaliered along a wall or fence to add security while remaining heavily ladened with berries from the previous seasons flower, while a Sarcococca confusa (Christmas box) gives a thick dark green dense cover closer to ground level, placed near a path or under a window, you will be able to enjoy its heady fragrance throughout the winter.
The colder season is also a perfect time to plant bare-root plants (plants that are sold without any soil or pot). It’s a great way to buy trees, roses, hedges and even some perennials double the size for a fraction of the price, making it a much more economical way to fill your garden.
When you are finished pruning, planning and planting, take time to potter around your shed or tidy up your green house, you will find this time of year there will be a lot less clutter. Service your lawn mower and sharpen your tools to prepare for the busier seasons ahead and try your best to stay warm and dry.