It’s time to size up your win­ter prun­ing

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Analysis - Gerry Daly

LAST spring, sum­mer, au­tumn and now win­ter have each been re­mark­able, though for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Spring was his­tor­i­cally cold; sum­mer brought drought; then au­tumn was a sunny pa­rade, and now win­ter, af­ter a damp start, has been in­cred­i­bly mild, to the ex­tent that plants are well ahead or just be­fud­dled.

Nas­tur­tiums still in flower, and lupins re­ported too, wall­flow­ers open­ing, lobster-claw in flower in De­cem­ber, hazel catkins shed­ding pollen be­fore the turn of the year — strange, to say the least. But na­ture has a way of lev­el­ling things out, known as dy­namic equi­lib­rium, in which the com­po­nents of a sys­tem act to bal­ance each other. If one part be­comes ex­ces­sive, the re­lated parts move to re­store equi­lib­rium. Dy­namic means the sys­tem moves.

Plants also act in re­sponse to changes in their sys­tem’s equi­lib­rium but they al­ways take ad­van­tage of im­proved cir­cum­stances and make any nec­es­sary ad­just­ment for later, and we might as well do the same as plants, or at least con­tinue the tried and trusted that has stood for time.

Win­ter is the usual time rec­om­mended for the an­nual prun­ing of ap­ple and pear trees, and black­cur­rant and goose­berry bushes, while dor­mant. But they can be pruned well into bud-break in March or even April but it is con­ve­nient to have it done be­fore other as­pects of the gar­den de­mand time. Plum and cherry trees are pruned in sum­mer to avoid dis­eases.

Prun­ing is done for sev­eral rea­sons: to keep the trees or bushes to a man­age­able size, to im­prove fruit qual­ity and to re­duce dis­ease. If it is not done an­nu­ally, the trees get too big and more dras­tic work has to be done even­tu­ally.

The prin­ci­ple of ap­ple tree prun­ing is to main­tain a re­newal sup­ply of vig­or­ous young branches, be­cause it is on this wood that the best fruit is car­ried. Prun­ing re­duces the amount of fruit car­ried but di­rects the ef­forts of the trees into the smaller num­bers, re­sult­ing in larger fruit of bet­ter qual­ity and flavour.

The aim is to prune out the num­ber of shoots by a third or a half, and shorten the re­main­der by one-third or half. Pears are pruned in the same way, ex­cept that they form fruit spurs to a greater de­gree, but some new wood will al­ways be re­quired for re­place­ment.

Black­cur­rant bushes can have about one third of the shoots, the older ones, re­moved. Red­cur­rants and goose­ber­ries have fruit­ing spurs, some can be thinned out and the young growth is short­ened back to a few cen­time­tres.

These rules-of-thumb are good for trees and that are pruned each win­ter but prun­ing is of­ten for­got­ten for years and the trees grow too big and dif­fi­cult to pick and to prune. When this oc­curs, more se­vere prun­ing is nec­es­sary.

First, all dead, bro­ken or dis­eased branches are re­moved. Then cross­ing branches have one or both re­moved and also branches grow­ing to­wards the tree cen­tre. The re­main­ing branches are short­ened by one-third or a half of their length, and re­duce by half the sec­ondary branches both by num­ber and length.

An ap­ple tree also fol­lows the rules of dy­namic equi­lib­rium and, when pruned hard, tries to re­place the lost ones with a burst of growth, be­cause trees want to grow big­ger. The new soft growth is called ‘‘wa­ter shoots’’, and they should be re­moved in early sum­mer when fin­ger-length, forc­ing growth into fruit­ing branches.

SHORT CUTS: Ap­ple trees need a sup­ply of vig­or­ous branches

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