When we moved into our new house, I was thrilled. For the first time, we had enough land to do something with. Now, I realize my few acres may not seem much like a homestead to some, but when all you’ve had is postage sized yards, having one with about an acre of arable land seems like a broad expanse of land to work with.
Not only did I have a descent sized backyard, but it already had fruit trees and grape vines in it. Unfortunately, the trees and vines had been ignored for a number of years, so they weren’t producing as well as they should have been, but that could be fixed. There was only one problem; I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to prune a tree properly.
Proper pruning is an important part of stimulating growth and maximizing fruit production. But if it is done incorrectly, all it’s going to do is remove branches from the tree, often the very branches that are needed. I’ve seen that happen too many times.
Get the Timing Right
The first thing I learned about pruning is that timing is extremely important. These guys who go around in an old pickup truck, offering to prune your trees aren’t thinking about what’s best for the trees; they’re just trying to pay their bills. If trees are pruned at the wrong time, all it will do is kill off part of the tree.
The right time for pruning trees is when they are dormant. That means that all the leaves have fallen and the tree is ready for the winter. If you live deep in the South of Texas, that means you’ll have to wait much later in the year than someone who lives in Ohio.
Grape vines also need to be pruned when they are dormant, but for them, it’s best to wait for February or March to prune. They still need to be dormant, so it’s important to catch them before the last frost hits.
Pruning Trees with Purpose
When pruning is planned and executed properly, it reduces the number of shoots so that the remaining shoots can be healthier. This includes removing unproductive or dead shoots, as well as removing shoots which are preventing light from getting to all the branches of the tree. When I moved into my house, the branches were so thick on my fruit trees, that the fruit wasn’t getting enough light.
There are two different types of cuts for fruit trees. The first is “heading” a branch or shoot. This consists of cutting off the end of the shoot so that it will not continue growing in that direction. This helps to stiffen the tree, making the remaining part of the shoot stronger. If the shoot is cut at a growth bud, the single shoot will be replaced by several, thickening the tree’s growth.
The second type of cut is “thinning.” In this case, the entire shoot is cut off at its juncture with a limb. This improves light penetration to the rest of the tree.
The most fruitful branches of a tree are those which are growing horizontally or between horizontal and 45 degrees upward. Fruit on vertical branches will tend to lie against the branch, where it can easily spoil. However, the vertical branches will be more vegetative and vigorous in their growth, providing nutrition to the tree. Branches that grow straight up from horizontal branches and branches which bend downwards are the least fruitful and should be removed.
Cuts should be made within 1/4 inch of a bud, as the new growth will come from the bud. If the cut is not made close to the bud, it will not stimulate new growth.
Pruning Grape Vines
Since grapes grow on vines, pruning is even more important to their growth and the size of the harvest than it is to fruit trees. When I moved in, I had some massive vines, but they provided very little fruit that year. After pruning them they produced much more fruit the second year.
As vines, grapes need to grow on some sort of trellis. I’m using essentially what they use in wine country, with a series of horizontal wires, strung between poles. The lowest of these is 30 inches off the ground, which keeps the fruit from touching the ground, as well as helping keep my dogs from knocking it off.
One nice thing about grape vines is that they grow so rapidly that you just about can’t destroy them by over-pruning. While I had some grape vines that didn’t grow, it was because they came home from the nursery dead, not dormant.
When planting a new grape vine, the purpose of the pruning is to create a strong trunk. In order to do this, I cut off all of the other branches, except the one which looked the healthiest. This one was cut back to three buds and attached to a stick to help direct it up to the trellis.
Once the vine reaches the trellis, the two healthiest shoots, which are called “canes,” need to be chosen and attached horizontally to the trellis, one running to each side. All of the other canes, except two need to be cut off. The two which are saved (over and above the two canes), should be cut to two or three buds and allowed to grow. They will become the canes used for the next year’s harvest.
Shoots grow up from the canes, attaching themselves to the other wires in the trellis. They need some help with this, training the shoots to grow upwards and attaching them to the trellis at each wire. Without the trellis, the vine itself isn’t strong enough to support the fruit. I found that these shoots need to have 14 to 16 well exposed leaves in order to properly ripen a grape cluster. If there are too many shoots, there isn’t enough nutrition available for the fruit. So, the shoots need to be thinned out periodically, cutting off the non-productive ones.
When shoots get too many clusters on them, it also affects production. The smaller clusters can be cut off, leaving the healthier ones to grow. If the leaves around the grape clusters are removed a few days before harvesting, it helps get the sun to the fruit to ripen.