Pruning Fruit Trees

February!  It’s time to prune here!  With this warm weather, 70’s,  it’s a race against time for me!  Racing around planting the garden, planning CSA crops, getting seedlings starting, running my shop, spraying dormant oil, weeds popping up everywhere and taking care of the old cat, Casper the Perfect Cat who has to eat 7-8 times a day! Yup he’s still doing good!  Whoa!  And making sure there is time for the new grand-baby (cutest baby on earth)! Arrg!  When am I going to get it done?

Ok, so I do cheat a little.  During the fall months after most of the leaves have dropped, I prune my apples and pears.  With almost 50 fruit trees, this can really help in the spring.  They sure don’t seem to mind and there is less water sprouts, which pears and apples are more prone to producing.  So this is a win win for me!

If weather is warm, like this year, I start early pruning.  Mid-January.  An apple a  day…Or a tree a day keeps…huh, I don’t have anything!  Here is some guidelines to follow when pruning.  GOOD TOOLS!  I can’t say it enough!  A good sharp tool is well worth it’s weight.  My favorite?  Felco!  I have had the a Felco f-13 for large hands for well over 10 years, plus it cuts larger branches and I don’t have to reach for the loppers.  They come in several sizes to pick from, so get the right tool for your hand to reduce fatigue. They do cost more, or do they?  10 years and still keeps ticking, well, still cutting!  I just can’t say enough about these excellent tools!  I keep it sharp, enough to chop a finger…there’s a story.  Sharp tools whiz through the work, making a clean-cut.  Clean cuts ensure pests don’t enter raggedy edges of the branches.  Good sharp saws are also important for those larger branches that are to big for pruners.  Again, I love my felco saws!  And of course a good pair of loppers.  On to pruning techniques!

Felco Pruners F-13

Tried and True Felco Pruners

You can stand out by your fruit tree with a pruning manual in one hand and pruners in the other and never get anywhere. You have to dig in!  Once you get going, you’ll get it!  Keep in mind, not all tree shapes are created equal! So relax about having the picture perfect tree.  More than likely, it isn’t going to happen!

I will prune twice each year, winter is a major pruning and summer pruning is done to keep sunlight on the fruit to sweeten it and help it ripen, and to remove any suckers that may develop. Usually when I do my thinning chores, I have a pair of pruners in my back pocket. Saves time.

Shapes of Trees:

Central Leader – is best for apples, pears, European-type plums (green gage, damson) and sweet cherries.  A “central leader” is the main stem or trunk of the tree from which other lateral branches develop.  For central leader shaped trees, select the tallest, straightest shoot to be the central post.  This will give the central post an extra bit of dominance. Start shaping the lower scaffolding by cutting back a branch with a heading cut, making sure that the new branch you choose will maintain an angle of 30-45 degrees.  Too flat an angle when you have a heavy crop, could break the branch.  Some heavy producing years, no matter how good your pruning is, you may need to tie some of the lower scaffolding branches to the central post for support.

15 Year old Peach Tree Pruned to Open Center

15 Year old Peach Tree Pruned to Open Center

Open Center – is best for peaches, nectarines, Japaneses-type plums (Santa Rosa, mariposa, elephant heart) apricots, and sour cherries.  Open center fruit tree pruning are based around three or four main limbs set at wide angles with about five lesser branches on each.

Planting new trees?  Look your tree over well when purchasing.  Look carefully over the trunk, especially near the soil line.  Watch for abrasions of any kind!  Abrasions can be a sign of present or future problems.  A tree on sale, may be a good deal at the moment, but it may cost you time and trouble down the road.  Look at its shape as well.  If the tree has branches only on one side, it will be harder to train to “open center”, but maybe easier to “central leader”.  For peaches and apricots, look for three or four main branches that are evenly, or somewhat evenly spaced.  The angles of these branches can be trained by placing a spreader between the main trunk and main limbs. So as long as they aren’t all straight up with the trunk, you can probably shape it. You can purchase these spreader or make them yourself.  When placing a spreader, be careful not to force your branch too much, or you may cause it to split at the trunk.  Do this gradually over time (within the first 6 months).  New trees will sometimes develop shoots along the trunk, don’t cut them, rub them off.  Cutting them encourages growth.  Do a small amount of pruning 4 or 5 times during the summer to get the shape you desire.

Here are things to remember –

1. Cleaning up the tree – This includes removing the following:

  • Dead, diseased and broken branches.  See!  That’s an easy first step!
  • Water sprouts and suckers.
  • Weak dropping and unproductive branches.
  • turning downward branches.
  • competing leaders (this is when pruning central leader)

2. Let in light – Remove branches that:

  • Compete with other branches
  • Shade the center of the tree (in very hot climates, you do need to be careful not to go crazy here.  To much sunlight in high UV areas will cause sun-scald to branches).

3. Methods:

  • Make cuts at a 45-degree angle, 1/4″ above a bud.
  • Use hand pruners for 3/4″ to 1″ (depending on pruner type), lopper up to 2″, and saws for anything more than 2″ cuts.
  • When pruning a tree that has had disease, be sure to wipe with a disinfectant wipe before moving on to the next tree so you don’t spread the disease!
  • Do not paint with wood seal or other paint.  Painting will take the tree longer to heal over. Let nature take it course.

Here is a great tip to remember when you are doing corrective pruning.  Do not fertilize that tree for that season.  Fertilizing will stimulate more water sprouts.  The corrective pruning will provide enough stimulation of growth for that season.

In more depth –

You will need to decide whether or not you want to use a ladder to harvest, or pick fruit from the ground when planting your trees!  When I first planted my orchard, I pruned all branches from the ground up about three to three and half-foot.  20 + years later, as I replace and plant new ones, I don’t want them so high, so I keep those main branches to about two foot from the ground.  I like this much better!

Peach trees will produce fruit on one year old wood.  Pruning needs to be done to encourage new healthy wood that is about 12-18″ long and under 1″ in diameter. Branches should be cut out that are to close to each other and any dead, diseased or broken branches or twigs.  The best fruiting wood will be horizontal wood.  The whole tree needs to be pruned enough so that the branches have space around them. Leave branches that will shade the tree trunk, which decrease the chance of sunburn.  This is especially true for out high UV area.  Suncald on tree trunks will cause bark to peel away, inviting insects and weakened branches.

Cherries and apricots will produce fruit on 1-year old branches.  Cutting old limbs keeps an apricot tree productive and healthy.  Some people will remove all the little stubs that form on cherries and apricots, leaving whips, but to find out later they just removed all their fruit as well.  Remove only 20 percent of the older growth throughout the tree. Pruning apricots and cherries can also be done after fruiting, late August if you live in a wet area.  This reduces the chance of disease that develops in wet conditions.  However!!!!  This is not good in our climate because it stresses the tree when doing the major pruning in temperatures above 100 degrees.  And we are certainly in that heat zone in August!

So, grab your pruners, loppers, and saw, and get to work!  I’m headed!



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Fresh Pumpkin Puree for the Best Pumpkin Pie!

Using your own pumpkins will make the best tasting pumpkin pies! It’s super easy and it produces a fresher-tasting pie. Use 2 medium sugar pie or other eating pumpkins. Field (Jack o’ Lantern) pumpkins don’t make the best pies, but Casper or Cinderella pumpkins will work fine. Preheat oven to 400 degree Fahrenheit. Cut out the stem, quarter the pumpkin lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Bake the quarters cut side down in a shallow roasting pan with a little water in the bottom, until tender, about an hour. Let cool, then scrape the flesh from the skin and run it through a food mill for a nice puree. Use puree in your favorite pumpkin pie recipe. Freeze any left over puree for up to 2 months.
Tip: Pumpkin pie is at its best baked the day it is served without ever being refrigerated. Schedule your baking so that you can take the pie out of the oven just as you slide the turkey in. Enjoy!


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Fall, A time to relax?

IMG_4749.JPGNot in my neck of the woods. I would have to say that fall is one of the busiest times of they year for us. It’s time to prep for winter. Pull out spent summer crops to make room for late fall and winter crops and get beds amended for those beds, ensure we have enough frost blanket, scrub the greenhouse and bring in citrus trees and other tender potted plants, It’s hunter, gatherer time. We need to ensure we have enough feed for the animals to last until the first cutting of hay in May if not more. Hay can be scarce if we have a wet spring and the first few cutting are ruined. So the more in store, the better. I thoroughly clean the chicken coop, scrubbing the nesting boxes, roosts, feeders and waters. knowing I won’t return to this chore until spring arrives. With only sixteen chickens a light raking and a few buckets for the compost once a month seems to be enough through the winter months. I like to fill drums with organic chicken scratch, layer pellets, enough to last the winter. While filling the drums I sprinkle diatomaceous earth food grade lightly over all the feed. This helps keeps any winter bugs out of the grain, but is also an excellent wormer for the chickens. Garlic is a big part of fall and consumes plenty of “spare” time. We plant over 50 varieties and I seem to treat each clove as if it were the last crop on earth. Harvesting of sweet potatoes need to be done before it freezes or it will ruin them. Greens, brassicas are planted right up to our first frost (and sometimes beyond) in abundance for fresh winters harvest and when the frost come, we cover with hoops and frost blanket and row cover. Our garden turns into a white winter wonderland. I uncover once a week (could do more if time allowed) to check on soil moisture, and possible bug infestation, which is rare and to see if any crops are ready to harvest. In the dead of winter when temperatures reach the coldest, these crops pull through for us and provide fresh garden produce if covered. Winter squash, apples and potatoes are hauled to the small root cellar we dug several years ago. This keeps the crops cool, allows some moisture to keep food fresh and is a great place to store without taking up precious space in our home. I always dust our potatoes with agriculture lime, which keeps them longer by hastening sprouting.
Persimmons, quince and the last of the apples are harvested and then preserved in the beginning to mid part of November depending on forecast. A frost will sweeten them, but a hard freeze can ruin the whole crop.
While I don’t do much composting during the winter time, I do spread the last finished black gold around garlic, leeks and onions to provide protection and turn the heap one more time.
Leaves become very abundant after the first freeze. These get added to the compost heap, turned into the garden soil and a large portion is shredded and made into leaf mold.
Then there is the 2:00 am panic of the first hard freeze. Did I get the heater on in the greenhouse? Did I cover any crops that may need a little extra cover…The pumpkins? I decorate our yard and porches with all our pie pumpkins for fall and a little frost won’t hurt them, but a hard freeze will ruin their storage ability turning them to mush.
I am the do it yourself “project” queen! When my sweet husband thinks things might simmer down, when this year it was time to rip up the old driveway and put in new. At first rough calculation we figured 8 yards of cement, as a, well, guess. Not to big of a project, you know a weekend job, haha! This little project jumped to 26 yards. Math, maybe not a strong point. While that wasn’t enough, I decided to pull out the old wood floor in the barn and milking area and put cement in there as well….at the same time and much cleaner. Hummm….a little extra with each section poured…I can make my life a little easier later on by cementing the chicken coop as well! Clean up will be a snap! Yes, project queen! With a little help from our kids and a friend, we buzzed through this project…in six long weeks. You know, a little weekend project in my eyes!
This fall we started a CSA. We have done farmers markets and provided other CSA’s with produce for over a decade, so we felt we were prepared to launch Desert Sage CSA without a hitch. I love growing produce, but planning has become more crucial and my hap hazard planting will definitely have to be more organized. So the end of November, my early spring crops will begin by seed in the greenhouse. Onions, leeks and shallots. Mid-December cabbage, broccoli, kale and other greens begin with two-week succession plantings begin and continue through February as at that time direct sowing begins.
So, a time for rest? Probably not, so I think a person would have love what she does….and love the product of her work! So do I enjoy fall? More than anytime other time of the year! There is no better harvests, no better smell then fall and color is totally amazing.



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Plant Hardy Coneflowers!

Looking for an outstanding perennial that can withstand heat, drought and still be beautiful Summer through Fall?  Coneflowers (Echinacea) are a long time favorite for as long as I can remember.  When I first started planted Echinacea in my garden purple was the only color to be found and now the array of colors are almost endless.  Yellows, oranges, purples, pinks, magenta, green, whites…Some are even fragrant.  WOW!    The flowers are long lasting as well.

Cheyenne Spirit Echinacea Flowers

Cheyenne Spirit Echinacea Flowers

Coneflowers grow in zones 3-8.  Deer don’t seem to bother coneflowers, but rabbits can be pesky. Self seeding is common with the common purple coneflower, while the hybrid varieties spread better by roots.  Give your coneflowers plenty of sun or they can become spindly and produce small flowers. Plant in a well-drained spot.  If you soil has a tendency to become waterlogged, plant your coneflowers high, giving them a better chance to drain.  Coneflowers don’t like their roots wet for extended periods of time.  Wet roots equals root rot with echinacea.   Here’s a bit of good news!  Coneflowers don’t need rich soil to do well.  In fact a very small amount of fertilizer in early summer just before they set out blossoms is all they need for the season.  Echinacea makes a great statement when planted in groups of five or seven (always odd numbers) or in drifts.  Deadhead spent flower to keep new ones forming.  Late fall I usually leave the last of the flowers/seed-heads for the birds to feast off of during sparse winter months.  They are great for wildlife gardens due to the seed heads they produce.  Cut back the dead foliage (from frost) after birds have harvested all the seeds to one inch above the ground.  Echinacea can be drought tolerant once the roots get established.  This usually take a couple of years, so don’t forget to care for you investment until then! While they are low maintenance…this do not mean not maintenance!

Some of my favorite coneflowers are;  Flame Thrower.  It has a bright, big beautiful flower that really makes a statement. Hot Papaya for its unusual fluffy center and brilliant pink color. Cheyenne Spirit for its fabulous array of colors that can form on one plant.  Yellow, deep orange, bright orange and other autumn shades.

Great companion plants for echinacea are grasses, bee balms, anise hyssop or rudbeckias.  These all look great together and have the same water and fertilizer needs making your job easier!

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