A Simple Guide to Tree Pruning

when it comes to pruning, try to keep elephants away

when it comes to pruning, try to keep elephants away

As winter arrives and plants go dormant, gardeners, too, should take a rest. Winter vegetables – peas, beets, cabbages and lettuce – need harvesting, and there are always a few weeds to pull. But otherwise, winter should be the gardener’s sabbath season.
Blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a lot more energy than most people, gardeners are not always wise enough to take a hint from their plants and just relax for a month or two. Instead, an outlet for their gardening libido must be found, even in winter. Sometimes, unnecessary pruning is the result.
Excessive, counterproductive pruning of fruit trees is common. Except for peaches and nectarines, deciduous fruit trees do not require much annual pruning.
Apples produce fruit on short stems called spurs that may grow as little as one inch a year over a period of 10 years. Removal of these spurs in overzealous pruning will decrease fruit production. Apricots and plums produce some fruit on spurs and some on shoots. Only peaches and nectarines produce exclusively on fast-growing shoots, which may grow over five feet a year, and should be pruned back by 50 percent or more each winter. Evergreen fruit trees – such as orange, lemon and avocado – require little, if any, pruning.
On any tree, suckers, which grow from the trunk base, and water sprouts – rank vertical shoots that grow up from the middle of side branches – should be removed as soon as they appear during the growing season. Dead wood and diseased or spindly growth also should be cut out.
Common sense is the best guide for pruning; for example, when two branches rub together, one of them should be removed, since moisture may collect at the contact point, inviting disease or insect infestation. When too many branches grow from a single point or when there is disproportionate growth on one side of a tree, the likelihood of breakage is increased, and some pruning is advised.
With most trees, a good pruning job is like a good haircut; if it is obvious that a tree has been pruned, it has probably been pruned too much. The natural shape of a tree should never be altered. Pruning is an artificial means of invigorating a plant, the result of which is abnormally rapid growth. The more drastically a tree is pruned, the more quickly it will regrow and need to be pruned again.
In Los Angeles, most tree-pruning could be eliminated if planting location was better matched to tree type, if trees were not planted so closely together, and if watering of trees could be reduced. The taller-growing eucalyptus varieties, for instance, have no place in the residential landscape. Astonishingly, these trees are often planted within a few feet of apartment buildings and condominiums, where their swishing branches rub against windows and keep people awake during windy nights.
It is also a mistake to plant eucalyptus in lawns or on slopes. In lawns, the two inches of water needed to make the grass grow makes eucalyptus branches brittle. On slopes, eucalyptus frequently fall over; their pronounced vertical growth habit is incompatible with hilly terrain.
Many people like to prune their deciduous trees as soon as all the leaves have fallen. I prefer to wait until February, just before leaf and flower buds open. The reason for this has to do with our Los Angeles weather, which can suddenly turn warm, as it just did these last two weeks.
Once you have pruned your trees, buds may open as soon as there is a spell of warm weather. If cold, wind or rain should follow, the fragile young leaves and flowers can be damaged, reducing fruit production; this is the problem with December or even January pruning.
If you wait until February, however, you can be reasonably sure that the days will get progressively warmer, with less risk of cold damage to new growth.

Photo credit: Rainbirder / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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