Making the cut – provide your fruit trees with some pruning love and reap the benefits

About ten years ago we were lucky enough to live in a gorgeous weatherboard home on a full site with a huge garden and an orchard, which felt like an oasis in our urban setting. We would have picnics under the trees, and every season brought some new delight in our backyard. And I can’t even describe how good the fruit tasted – it was nothing like what we’d ever tried from the supermarket.

Looking back, 30 or more years ago, many New Zealand homes were set up this way with an orchard and a garden – it was the standard. Although most of us aren’t afforded this amount of space these days, we can utilise the space we do have to grow edibles and to plant one or two fruit trees, even in pots, or by keeping large trees, even avocados, to a fraction of the size they would grow if left unchecked. The trend for growing fruit trees is on the rise, and you can see why when you look at what you get back for your effort.

Not only do fruit trees yield a rewarding crop of nutritious fruit, they also make a lovely feature in your garden, providing fragrant blossoms in spring and a shady spot for relaxing in the summer months.

Fruit trees need a few things to keep them healthy and producing well – most importantly, pruning*. It may seem counter-intuitive to cut back your precious tree, but it will greatly benefit from it, as you will see in the fruiting season.

*While pruning is beneficial for most fruit trees, not all fruiting plants require it. Many new dwarf cultivars of peaches, apricots, nectarines and apples have been bred to eliminate the need for annual pruning and maintenance.

Why prune?

• To encourage fresh new fruiting branches.

• To allow more sunlight, which encourages ripening of fruit.

• To create air flow through the tree, which helps to prevent pest and disease problems.

• To remove any infected and decayed branches.

• To create the height and shape that you want, which is best for the tree.

“It may seem counter-intuitive to cut back your precious tree, but it will greatly benefit from it, as you will see in the fruiting season.” – Kahu de Beer

How to prune

Look at when is the best time to prune your chosen fruit tree (see opposite). You will need a pair of clean, sharp secateurs for small branches, and a pair of loppers or a saw for thicker branches. Choose a dry day, to limit the spread of fungal spores and diseases. Cuts should be angled so that rain or dew will run off and not cause diseases to penetrate the tree. To prune, cut just slightly above each growth bud. When removing entire shoots, cut close to the main branch rather than leaving a stub that will die back and be a potential risk for the tree’s health.

When removing dead or diseased wood, always cut through the healthy tissue below the diseased section and ensure you dispose of all clippings and prunings, and clean tools after use. For bigger cuts (over about 3cm) it’s a good idea to apply a pruning paste from your local garden store to protect your tree against disease if the job has been done in the wetter months. Make cuts just above an outward-facing bud. For young fruit trees in the early stages of development, the main goal with pruning is to create the shape and framework of the tree so that it will be able to best support heavy fruit crops.

When to prune

• Nectarines, peaches, almonds and plums: the best time to prune stone fruit trees is in late summer after the tree has finished fruiting. Peach and nectarine trees flower on new wood made the previous summer so require decent pruning to encourage new growth (otherwise fruit will be produced further and further out on the branches each season). Almonds and plums don’t need pruning every season; excessive pruning can lead to over-stimulating tree growth at the expense of fruit.

• Pears and apples: after initial shaping of trees, apples and pears require only little pruning during late winter or early spring before the sap rises, to remove excess twiggy growth. These trees usually produce fruit on spurs, which are short, stubby growths attached to main branches, and continue producing on the same spurs for a number of years.

• Feijoas, figs, olives, citrus, guavas: only prune these trees as needed, and after they have finished fruiting. Citrus will not like being cut back if the weather is still frosty.

• Grapes and kiwifruit: cut back to 3-5 buds during winter and attach new canes to trellises or wires.

• Cherries and blueberries: these don’t need much pruning except to remove dying or diseased wood or to maintain a good shape. When pruning is required, the best time to do it is after fruiting in summer or autumn. Both these trees will fruit mostly on the same wood for some years.

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