The kindest cut
IMADE the mistake of leaving a European plum tree unpruned for the past three years and disaster has now struck. It is a heavy- bearing Purple Splendour prune, a particularly delicious, extra- sweet type of purple plum with golden, juicy flesh and a tiny stone.
When an enormous crop began to develop on long, slender branches this season, greed replaced common sense. I took a chance in the hope of gathering a huge harvest.
Last week all the major branches gave way and cracked under the massive weight. Now almost the entire tree has collapsed before the fruit had a chance to ripen.
It’s my fault entirely, because I should have cut back all weak or slender branches and sacrificed about a third of the prunes a month ago. It would have been no loss because those left on the tree would have grown bigger and tasted even sweeter.
The only solution now is to cut off all the broken branches at the nearest junction and be content with a tiny fraction of the anticipated yield.
When branches are partly broken by crop weight or wind gusts they cannot be repaired. All must be cut completely free, if possible without leaving a stub.
It is still a common misconception that most deciduous fruit trees are pruned while dormant during winter.
In fact, the safest time is always in summer when they are in full active growth – even if still carrying fruit.
The advantages are enormous. For a start, all pruning wounds heal rapidly at this time of the year. That means they soon form healing calluses so diseases have less time to gain access.
Summer pruning is easily carried out. Most deciduous fruit trees including apples, pears, plums, apricots, peaches and nectarines are best trained to a simple open- centre system.
In short they are shaped like old- fashioned wine- glasses – with branches radiating outwards from an open centre.
This allows better air circulation to reduce fungal and other diseases while allowing in extra light for more even ripening of the fruit. Open centres also provide access for birds to help control pests.
Most of the current season’s internal branches don’t carry fruit anyway so can be cut out flush from where they spring, usually a lower limb. This is the treatment I am now giving our plum and peach trees, even those still in fruit.
Extra- long branches can be cut back by as much as a quarter, although if the fruit is almost ripening, wait until it has been harvested before getting stuck in.
Some apple varieties, especially Pink Lady, Lady in the Snow and Spartan, carry huge numbers of fruit in tightly packed clusters. Even now it is not too late to thin them by evenly removing up to half the small apples.
Those left behind not only grow larger but also become much sweeter and more aromatic. Other apple varieties, especially Cox’s Orange Pippin and Bramley’s Seedling, usually fail to carry decent crops in subsequent years if overcrowded fruit are not kept severely thinned.
All over- vigorous apple trees can be hard pruned this month. This involves cutting out all congested branches growing into canopy centres and then reducing all current season’s new growth by about half.
Apart from reducing wasteful vigour this has a wonderful effect on tree health and productivity.
Pear trees are notoriously aggressive and if ignored over several seasons will grow to an enormous size. These neglected trees carry massive numbers of tiny, tasteless pears in huge, heavy but useless clusters and become a waste of space.
Such trees can be heavily pruned back.
CROWDED CROP: Pink Lady apples always need thinning ( main); and ( inset) branches that have snapped due to the weight of too much fruit must be completely cut free.