Monday, March 17, 2014

Why I love winter pruning

More than baby goats. More than harvesting the first big tomato. More than serving a meal of 100% farm raised food. I. Love. Winter. Pruning.
A bright, sunny Seattle winter day and a tree ready for pruning

This may sound like an unusual farm chore to be passionately attached to, but it's true. It is my hands' down favorite. I live just outside Seattle. Our winters are not very cold - sure, it freezes sometimes, but it's never unbearably cold. This year has been comparatively dry, bright and sunny. Enough to worry about next summer's water, but also enough to draw everybody outside. A dry day is a beautiful day and it's a pleasure to be out in it.

A tree in summer. Form obscured by leaves

A tree in summer really does resemble the lollipop drawings we did as kids.

It has a stem, and it has - well - a blob of green, leafy stuff on top.

And what is going on under those leaves is anybodies guess.

It's when the leaves fall and the branches are revealed that you know what works and what needs correcting.

But mainly I love winter pruning because it's all about the discipline of decision making. Every step and every cut is a decision, but the rules are simple, rational, and they set you up to make the right decisions most of the time.

The Safety rules: follow all of them all the time

If you cut off a thumb in a pruning accident, your best hope is to have a trained surgeon sew it back on. Medicine is wonderful, but it's better not to have that happen.
  1. Always know where your fingers are and where the sharp part of your cutting tools are. Keep them separate. If your hands are cold, don't count on your sense of touch alone. Your hands may be cold enough not to notice if a saw blade nicks them. LOOK at your saw and your fingers when you start to cut. 
  2. Use correct ladder placement. I use an orchard ladder with three legs. I always maintain a strong angle between the pole and the fixed legs, and never climb so my waist is above the top step. Whatever ladder you use, use it safely and move it as needed instead of extending your body weight away from the center.
  3. Know your tools and check them often. Keep pruner and saw sharp, clean, and if they fall, know where they landed. Check ladder before using. I wear gloves every time I prune.
  4. Quit when you get tired or too cold or when the sun starts to set. Have someone come check if you aren't good at calling it a day. Every time I have hurt myself, this is the rule I was breaking. Eventually I learned to obey it.

Pruning rules: follow them in order

Plants do have the  potential to replace severed limbs, provided their trunks remain intact and can carry nutrients back and forth from crown to roots. So if you make a mistake while pruning a branch, don't despair - next year, give the plant an opportunity to regrow the branch you wish you hadn't cut.

However, plants are sensitive until their wounds seal over. If you cut a plant the wrong way, it is left wide open for bacterial infection. So always prune to leave a collar - the ring of cells where a branch meets the next larger scaffold. The tree will grow a cover of bark over the cut starting with the collar cells you leave behind.

Always cut on a slant to let water shed off the surface. And if you have any reason to think the branch you cut was diseased, disinfect the blade between cuts using 10% bleach or rubbing alcohol.

Water shoots, inward branches, overly long or weirdly positioned branches, on a shapely tree
  1. Remove all dead branches. You may have noticed they were dead when the rest of the tree leafed out and they didn't, or you might notice now because they are light in weight, brittle, or their skin isn't green beneath the bark. Follow the branch down to living tissue, and cut to leave a living collar . Don't leave a projecting stump, just the collar. 
  2. Remove all diseased branches - ones with blistered, discolored or split bark or bark that is oozing sap, or branches where you noted unusually weird leaves over the summer. Disinfect the cutting blade with bleach or rubbing alcohol after each cut on diseased wood.
  3. Remove all damaged, broken branches as above. Our neighbors have a huge poplar that sometimes randomly drops branches. They can fall quite a distance and often break the limbs of our trees. So we do a lot of this one.
  4. Look for branches that rub against each other. One of the two must be removed or they will rub each other's bark right off. Keep the one that is stronger or better positioned. A well positioned branch points outward from the center and is held at about a 45% angle. 
    A branch rubbed bare by another branch crossing it
  5. Now for another decision. Find branches that don't make sense. Branches that point back in toward the center of the tree, or that hang downward, or point straight up, or are otherwise inharmonious. Remove them to their collars. Some trees make a lot of these, others seem to follow all the rules all on their own.
  6. You may have already done enough major pruning. But remember your goal is to allow light and air into the tree. So walk around it and see how much light comes in. Imagine the branches in full  leaf. Are branches crowding each other in one area? Will moist, fungal air be trapped among the leaves, spreading disease? If so, remove the branch that is least well positioned.
  7. Nearby tree shows stubby cuts. Tree in background shows water sprouts that turned into giant upright branches
  8. Now you can use your hand pruners to cut back water sprouts. These are young growth that points straight up. Usually you get a cluster of them around a severed branch. The tip of the tallest sprout sends a hormone down the branch that encourages lower branches to grow outward and bear fruit instead of competing to go up. So if you remove all the water sprouts, the tree will stop getting that hormone, and new sprouts will form. Ideally you choose 1/4 of the sprouts, in the best position, and train them to be future branches. They will replace the dead, diseased, damaged and funny branches you take out in future years.
  9. But how to choose? A well positioned sprout points outward and is strong but flexible. Your goal is that when it makes fruit, their weight will help pull it downward into a 45 degree angle. That's a strong enough angle not to break under the fruit's weight, and unlike a totally upright branch, it gets signals telling it to be fruitful.
  10. So do your best, take out most of them but leave some. Cut the ones you remove down to the collar, as usual. For the ones you are leaving, cut just the three or four buds on the tip, ending with an outward facing bud.
  11. Now look at your more established, horizontal branches. Remove those that have gotten much below the horizontal - those that are hanging down. Apples and gravity, ya know - they go together. Too many fruit on a branch can break it right off.
  12. You may see spurs on your trees, recognizable by their many knobby bunches of fruiting buds. Over time, they will grow side twigs with so many buds they make small, feeble fruits. At that point, remove the smaller, thinner twigs leaving only strong thick ones.
  13. Then walk around the tree again. Again ask if you missed anything. Or not. You can always prune again next year.

Being out under the sky, surrounded by bare branches that hide next summer's embryonic apples and pears, knowing that what I am doing will open the trees up to the flow of sunlight and fresh air, is a great feeling. It's time spend alone with my thoughts, but thoughts have a way of pruning themselves too - dropping the unnecessary, the loud, the worried and fidgety, and leaving nothing but clarity and space.

Shared on: mondays-homestead-barn-hop-151,
the-backyard-farming-connection-hop-72 , 129th-wildcrafting-wednesday