An Alameda Garden: If You Don't Know What to Do, Take Something Off

Saturday, January 15, 2011

If You Don't Know What to Do, Take Something Off

January is pruning season and there are few garden tasks I find more satisfying than pruning. Yet every time I approach pruning, my insecurities kick in. Even after a few years of doing it, I start thinking that I'm going to screw things up.

In order to build up my pruning confidence, I attended a free class in fruit tree pruning this morning at Berkeley Horticultural Nursery. It was just an hour long but it was a great refresher. Two staff people covered all the basics about pruning fruit trees and answered lots of questions. In addition, they had a different take on the advantages of summer pruning vs. winter pruning than what I'd been taught. Conventional thinking has been that it is best to do the heavier pruning on deciduous fruit trees in the winter when you can really see the structure clearly and to encourage spring growth. The instructors today, however, suggested that whatever you prune off in the winter will grow back and have to be taken off again in the summer, so you might as well wait and do the major prune in the summer (actually, May or June). Hmmm. I can see their point, but there's something about going at a bare tree when you can really see the branches that is more comforting to me. But the best advice of the whole session was this bit of wisdom: if you don't know what to do, take something off. Trees can survive bad pruning better than they can survive no pruning at all. So, as with so many other things in life, the best thing to do is just get off your ass and do it.

So I did. With freshly sharpened pruners and loppers, I started on my two young apple trees that I'm shaping into an informal espalier. Because they're still young, they needed only a few cuts. Same with the fig tree I have in a large oak barrel. The real challenge was the weeping Santa Rosa plum, which I went at with total enthusiasm. I took off the very top branches that had started to shoot straight up in order to keep a nice rounded shape and to keep the height under 8 feet. By this point I had my pruning mojo back and was really enjoying myself. I moved on to the Ranier cherry tree, which has been struggling the last couple years. I pruned off the leader to bring the height down a bit, and trimmed up most of the branches to encourage lots of new growth. Last, I did some shaping on the flowering cherry, taking out some crossing branches and opening up the center a bit. All of that pruning took only about an hour and it felt great.

If you'd like some guidance on winter pruning, you might want to check out Berkeley Hort's upcoming classes. Next Saturday (Jan. 22) they're covering rose pruning at 10:30 a.m. and they'll repeat the fruit tree pruning session on Saturday, Jan. 29 at 10:30 a.m. Get there early because seating is limited and it was packed today. Also, ask about a 10% discount on your purchases that day for anyone attending the class.

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