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Posts Tagged ‘apple trees’

Prune Fruit Trees – 2: Tools and Technique

Leaf buds in first-year growth hug the twig from which they grow. Flowering buds appear on older growth on the ends of spurs. When shortening a branch, cut behind at least one fruiting bud so you know you’re not pruning in last year’s growth. it’s OK to make that cut at a leaf bud or a flowering bud.

I was out in my small kitchen garden this morning, pruning apple trees. For people in hardiness zones 6 and lower, pruning season is upon us: late winter ends in just 21 days! If you haven’t pruned your fruit trees this winter, you should get started.

Have you never pruned a tree? Follow along. I had planned this post to examine the tools you’ll use, and to lay out a strategy to get good results. The post got quite long, so I’ve divided it into two parts. This one introduces pruning tools and shows how to use them.

Tools for Pruning Apple Trees

Finding Tools

Visit the Small Kitchen Garden Store to find all the tools you need for pruning.

Shears—For young trees, or trees that you’ve managed well over the years, pruning sheers may be enough to do the annual job; they’ll cut through branches up to about the diameter of a pencil. Shears fit easily in a pocket, so you stow them when you’re climbing ladders or trees and pull them out when you’re ready to prune.

A bypass pruner has scissor-like action. That is, two cutting blades slide past each other, each cutting into the branch.

An anvil pruner has one cutting blade that pinches the branch against a flat metal surface until the branch separates.

Two blades of a bypass pruner (left) cut a branch from opposite sides, letting you get close to your work, and decreasing the likelihood of crushing the branch. The single blade of an anvil pruner pinches a branch against a flat surface. In my experience, this often crushes the branch, damaging the leaf bud I’m trying to leave behind.

Perhaps the greatest innovation in pruning shears is the ratcheting shear. When you’re cutting heavy branches, you might not have enough strength to get through with one squeeze. A ratcheting shear lets you start a cut, release pressure, and squeeze again with greater leverage—it’s astonishing how easily a good ratcheting action can complete a cut.

Loppers—When you need to cut through branches thicker than a pencil, use loppers. Loppers come in many sizes. Generally, the longer the handles, the larger the branches they can shear. My loppers easily cut branches the thickness of broomsticks, and I’ve used them to cut branches perhaps twice that… albeit with less-than-ideal results. You can find both bypass and anvil loppers, and there are even ratcheting loppers.

The long handles of loppers give you a lot of leverage to shear off large branches. The handles on this set are three feet long, providing welcome reach into my too-tall trees.

Loppers are too large to put in your pocket, but they extend your reach so you won’t have to climb as high for light-to-medium pruning jobs.

My pruning saw has large teeth on one side for fast cuts through thick branches, and fine teeth on the other side for precise, clean cuts through small branches. I use the smaller teeth when I do grafting; if you plan never to graft, get a saw with big teeth. You’ll get through your pruning quickly.

Pruning saws—For the very thick branches, a pruning saw is handy. You can use other saws—a bow saw would be my first choice—but you’ll find a pruning saw among the easiest to fit into tight spaces and awkward positions you often deal with when working in trees.

I have a pruning saw with very coarse teeth on one side, and fine teeth on the other. The fine teeth have almost no set, so they can cut only very small branches without binding (read the box about Saw Teeth for an explanation of tooth set).

A Pruning Cut

The “how” of making a pruning cut is simple. There are two types: One that shortens a branch, and one that altogether removes a branch. My next post provides guidance on which branches to cut and why. Here’s how to make pruning cuts.

Shortening a Branch

I wish I’d chosen a healthier-looking spur to leave as this branch’s new terminus. But what matters for the discussion is where I’m cutting relative to the spur. The blades roughly match the angle of the spur, but miss the slight bulge where it meets the supporting branch.

To shorten a branch, always cut just beyond a leaf or fruiting bud. Wood protruding beyond the last living bud will most certainly die, leaving a point-of-entry for rot, insects, and microorganisms. When you cut close to a bud, that bud assumes the “leader” role for the branch and grows vigorously in the coming season. Because no wood protrudes beyond the bud, the vigorous new growth quickly scabs over and protects the bare wood.

Note that a bud protrudes from a branch at an angle. Cut along that angle without nicking the wood that directly supports the bud (see photo).

Removing a Branch

Cut a branch off as close as possible to the branch or trunk from which it’s growing. Usually, there is a bulge on the parent branch where the smaller branch emerges from it. Cut flush against that bulge without cutting into it. Also, don’t nick or scratch the bark on the limbs you’re leaving attached. When sawing, lay the saw blade onto the branch you’re preserving, gently engage the limb you’re removing, then saw carefully without letting the blade rub against the supporting branch. Don’t force the blade into the cut, and don’t rush.

Get the loppers in tight against the anchor branch from which you’re pruning another branch. If the branch fits comfortably in the blades of the lopper, you should get a clean cut that heals over in a year or two. In the photo on the right, notice the obvious margin between the branch and the bulge in the branch from which it protrudes. Remove the branch flush with the bulge… but leave the bulge. NOTE: a reader named “Mo” pointed out that I should reverse the loppers for this cut; the thicker blade should be down away from the anchor branch. Please check out his comment for an explanation.

As you reach the end of a cut, support the branch so it doesn’t pinch the saw or splinter away from the tree. Measure your final strokes so the blade doesn’t slip through and accidentally gouge bark. If your saw has teeth on both edges of the blade, you need to be extra careful to keep the rear teeth from messing up the branch you’re retaining.

When using loppers or shears to remove a branch, get the blades as close to the base of the branch as possible, and try to make a clean cut without stabbing the anchor branch. I feel as though I can get a closer cut with bypass pruners than I can with anvil pruners.

Saw Teeth

Few sawyers keep their hands moving in a perfectly straight line as they cut, and every tiny deviation from a straight line flexes the blade against the cut it’s making. Flex it enough and the saw binds; you need to straighten it in the cut to continue sawing.

To give sawyers a margin of error, saw manufacturers build saws with tooth set. The tooth set of a saw is the distance a tooth bends away from the center of the saw blade. Generally, every other tooth’s set goes to one side of the saw blade while the intervening teeth go to the opposite side of the blade. This makes the cutting edge of the blade wider than the blade itself, providing some play as you cut through thick wood.

The width of the slot that the saw makes as it cuts wood is the kerf. The width of the blade plus the set of the teeth determines the kerf of the cut.

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Prune Fruit Trees – 1

When jumbled, leafless branches block your view in winter, it’s time to learn about pruning apple trees.

Admittedly, a fruit tree seems a bit large to be a component of a small kitchen garden. However, it’s inescapable: if you want to grow certain fruits, you must grow trees. Besides, many homeowners ended up with fruit trees when they bought their houses; my yard had three apple trees, a pear tree, and a peach tree growing out-of-control when we moved in.

To get the best crop of fruit from your trees, you need to prune them. This is a late-winter job; it’s best to prune while a tree is dormant. I prune in March; in hardiness zone 5b sap starts flowing in late March or early April. I’ve gotten an early start this year so I can explain pruning here in time for you to get your trees in shape.

An old hole in the bark has heeled around the edges, but the exposed wood is dry and cracked. The branch beyond this damage is still productive, but removing it will make way for new, healthy growth.

Advantages of Pruning Apple Trees

If apple trees did come with your house, or if you have some old trees you’ve ignored for a season or longer, your trees may be a bit wild. In just one season of neglect (which, typically means two seasons of growth), a tree can mess itself up pretty severely. In two or three seasons of neglect, a tree can turn itself into a three- or four-year reclamation project.

Unless a tree is rotting through its trunk, you shouldn’t have much trouble getting it under control. There are a number of advantages to pruning, and they define the guidelines I follow as I tackle this relatively pleasant off-season gardening task. In no order of merit, here are advantages of pruning:

  • Pruning limits the size of a tree. By pruning, you keep a tree from competing with surrounding plants; from shading out your living spaces; and from interfering with wiring, clothes lines, buildings, walkways, and driveways. You also keep fruit within reach—fruit that grows on very high branches may go to waste.
  • Pruning opens spaces for light to get to the lower and inside branches of a tree.
  • Pruning removes dead and diseased wood.
  • Pruning simplifies a tree and makes it easier for you to work in and around the tree.
  • Pruning encourages new fruit-bearing growth.
  • Pruning tricks a tree into producing larger, meatier fruits.

Before you Prune

Cracks ring a branch in a pear tree, indicating that the branch is either dead or dying. This should be one of the first branches to go during the winter’s pruning.

Before we get our hands on pruning tools, there are a few important points to stress:

Be patient—you can make significant changes to a tree’s appearance in a single season. However, a particularly wild tree may require several years of pruning to get it into top form.

Stop when the tree emerges from dormancy—even if you haven’t completed your pruning agenda, don’t continue into the growing season. Once sap is flowing, it can accumulate at a cut and drip onto lower branches. The moisture and nearly undetectable sweetness can attract insects and feed pathogens. Opening a wound during the growing season causes unnecessary stress.

Don’t overdo it—never remove more than 20% to 25% of the tree’s leafing branches in a season of pruning. If you’re not confident about estimating 25%, be light-handed.

A crease has begun to form in a live branch where a dead branch presses into it. Crossed branches can grow around each other as they thicken, providing places for moisture, insects, algae, moss, fungus, and bacteria to gather and weaken the tree.

Tools matter—use sharp tools that make clean cuts, and clean the tools before you start pruning. It’s also wise to clean blades periodically while you’re pruning. A wipe with rubbing alcohol will disinfect tools so they don’t carry disease from one plant to another or spread disease to healthy limbs of an infected plant.

Pruning Tools and Techniques

In my next post, I’ll show you the tools I use and I’ll list the guidelines I follow as I prepare my fruit trees for a new growing season. If you have specific questions you’d like me to address, please leave comments; I’ll either respond with my own comments, or incorporate your questions into upcoming posts. For the discussion, I’ll talk about pruning apple trees, but the information applies as well to nearly any deciduous tree.

Please check back soon, or subscribe to my RSS feed so you catch the posts as I get them up on Your Small Kitchen Garden.

Here are links to other articles with information about pruning apple trees:

  • Pruning Fruit Trees with Knives – by Jeremiah Wright. More apples are grown in Great Britain than any other fruit. The reason of course is that the climate suits this fruit particularly. Apples can he grown to start the season in August, and to end the season in June by …

  • Pruning Apple Trees – Each Little World. Pruning trees and shrubs is one of the few reasons we northern gardeners have for venturing into the garden in the winter. And even at that , pruning at our house is generally limited to our two full-size apple trees. These 50-year-old trees…

  • How to Prune Apple Trees – Today we’re talking about Pruning Trees. In the coming weeks this will be a job to done, if you’d like more fruit. How to Prune Apple Trees by: Paul Curran. In this article you will find out how to prune apple trees. …


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