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Posts Tagged ‘peach trees’

Small Kitchen Garden P*rn: Bloom Day, April 2010

The forsythia are in their second week, and will be gone within days. They have been particularly striking this year.

To celebrate my first Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day of 2010, I’ve stepped out of my small kitchen garden. In fact, I’m going to confess something that is completely contrary to my best intentions.

I often express my lack of interest for planting anything that I’m not eventually going to eat. In truth, I’ve planted many ornamentals over the years. My wife has planted far more than many, and our yard is quite loaded with flowers through most of the growing season. Both the landscaping and the maintenance of it are exceptionally reproachable, but the flowers are gorgeous.

The photographer in me has always been a sap for flowers, and our interior décor includes enlargements of many of my flower photos. When I create a Bloom Day post, I usually stick to blossoms of the kitchen garden. Today, however, those blossoms share space with whatever else is busting out in our yard.

I grew a bit self-conscious while taking photos; I realized that I was focusing my camera a lot on what we might refer to as the flowers’ junk. The experience really brought home to me the meaning of the term “garden p*rn,” and I apologize for bringing it up in the first place. My next post will be back on point… I promise.

(Wondering why I’ve spelled “p*rn” with an asterisk instead of an “o?” I didn’t want to give Google the wrong idea.)

My wife has planted many varieties of daffodils, and they are usually the first plants to push leaves out of the thawing soil. They start to blossom as the crocuses wilt. I love the textures on these particularly frilly daffodils.

 

Not your typical all-yellow daffodil, the orange tinge around this daffodil’s junk makes for some lovely contrast. It was when I was photographing the daffodils that I realized the p*rnographic nature of my flower photos: what normal, young-blooded daffodil wouldn’t find this view compelling?

 

Among my favorite of all flowers, forget-me-nots are hearty perennials. They also seem happy to drop seeds that speed the plant’s spread through flower beds and into lawns. I adore these annoying plants… in fact, I planted the first forget-me-nots in our front ornamental bed at least ten years ago. My wife has done battle with them ever since.

 

The tulips start to blossom about when the forget-me-nots do. I’ve shot hundreds of tulip photos dating back to before digital, but these may be the first I’ve ever shown beyond my family photo albums. They look like tulips, yes?

 

Just squeaking in in time for Bloom Day, the lilacs are opening. A freeze about ten days ago left the tiny buds looking ominously dark, so I’m very happy to see these popping next to the stairs down from our back deck.

 

Azalea blossoms this early seem so out of place. The white azaleas have always blossomed ahead of the red ones, and this year is not exception. Only a few buds have opened, but in a matter of days I imagine the whole plant will be covered in white flowers.

 

Clouds against the blue sky, clusters of blossoms portend a decent pear harvest, assuming we’ve already had the final deep freeze of spring. Last year we had frost around May 26. I personally think fruit trees are stupid, given that they break into flower just because we have three weeks of warm weather three weeks earlier than usual.

 

I planted a Bartlett and a Moonglow pear tree side-by-side two autumns ago. They have both produced gorgeous pink blossoms among purple leaves. I won’t let them develop fruit this season, but perhaps next year they’ll be large enough to handle it.

 

If anyone in my yard is trying too hard this year, it’s the peach trees. An awesome display of overachievement. Assuming all the flowers set fruit, I’ll need to remove a lot of them while they’re young if I hope to harvest peaches of any significant size.

 

I love the way a cluster of buds emerges on an apple tree, and the bud in the middle opens… just a bit ahead of the other buds. I hate to see apple blossoms this early, but the bees have been happy. Here’s hoping we get no severe freeze, and the apple harvest is bountiful this coming autumn.

 

Dandelions and violets are among my favorite weed flowers. They are both exotic beauties that dominate my lawn for many weeks before I fire up the ugly lawn mower and behead them. Spring is an awesome time in a small kitchen gardener’s yard!

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Making a Graft in Your Small Kitchen Garden

A makeshift bucket of twigs cut from pruned branches hangs in the green apple tree I’m converting into a red apple tree.

For the past many posts, Your Small Kitchen Garden has focused on grafting and pruning apple trees. Two posts back, we looked at equipment I use to graft red apple stock onto my green apple tree—and I introduced a video that shows me assembling a graft. In the last post, I listed guidelines I follow as I choose which branches will host scions in the green apple tree. This post provides written, step-by-step instructions for assembling a graft. Though I’m talking about apple trees, this technique will work on just about any deciduous fruit tree.

I’ll assume that you’ve been pruning apple trees and have several branches from which to harvest grafting stock. Make scions from last year’s growth. Last year’s growth is at the ends of the smallest branches. Last year was very dry here, so branches grew only three or four inches beyond the previous year’s growth. In wet years, my apple branches have grown a foot or more. In any case, cut and save a dozen or so twelve-inch twigs off the ends of your pruned branches, and put these in a bucket you can hang from a branch.

If there are no fruiting spurs on the section of branch you harvest, you’re probably looking at last year’s growth. If you can spot a scaly ring in the bark, it most likely marks where the terminal bud spent last winter; everything after it should be last year’s growth.

Haul the twig bucket, a gear bucket, and a pruning saw up in the tree and perch so you can easily get both hands on the host branch without falling out of the tree. I like to work on a step ladder which provides a steady base and reduces my need to climb the tree. Standing on branches erodes the bark, and increases my chances of damaging small twigs and existing grafts.

7 Steps of Grafting Apple Trees

Cut the host branch—Make as clean a cut as you can, perpendicular to the branch. Leave a stump just two or three inches long. For very thin branches (a half inch is about the thinnest it’s practical to graft onto), I might use bypass pruners or loppers, but in most cases I use a fine-toothed saw so as not to crush the branch or its bark. With a saw, cut about three quarters of the way through from one side, then remove the saw from the cut, flip it, and finish the cut from the other side. I’ve seen better pruning saws than I own cut cleanly through a branch in a few strokes without a back cut… the quality of your tools will influence your technique.

Split the host branch—Use a sharp knife, align the blade across the center of the stump, and gently rock it while pressing it into the cut end. I try to split along a line that’s perpendicular to the trunk branch from which the stump grows. For a narrow stump, make the split about and inch long. For a heavier stump, it might take a three-inch split to provide enough play to get scions into the crack.

I liked this small branch as the host for a graft; it had a gaping hole in the bark that I was able to remove, and set a graft just blow it. The bypass pruners deformed the stump a little, but I’m confident the graft will take anyway. Notice that I split the stump across the limb to which it’s attached.

Make a scion—Whittle a scion from the harvested grafting stock. Start at a leaf bud three-to-seven inches from the terminal bud of a twig. Whittle a wedge starting at that leaf bud and getting narrower toward the bottom of the scion. The wedge—from leaf bud to the end of the scion—should be about a half inch long (see photos).

Start whittling on one side of a leaf bud, but make sure you leave the bud intact. A finished scion tapers for about a half to three quarters of an inch from the bottom leaf bud down to a chisel point. The leaf bud will sit about even with the end of the stump and will point out from the side of the stump.

Insert the scion into the stump—Spring the crack open and work the whittled wedge into one side of it. The leaf bud at the top of the wedge should point out, and end up aligned with the top of the stump. I use the point of my utility knife to spring the stump open. If you do this, be cautious; when you flex it too much, the knife blade will break. For thicker host branches, I sometimes use a screwdriver to hold the crack open as I insert scions (explained in my last post, Strategies for Grafting Fruit Trees). Make sure the edges of the bark of the scion align with the edges of the bark along the crack in the host stump.

I use the tip of my utility knife to flex the stump open as I insert the first scion into the crack. The first scion usually holds the stump open enough that I can easily insert the second scion. Aligning the bark at this point is crucial.

Add a second scion—Whittle a scion to match the first one and work it into the other end of the crack in the host stump. Chances are, you won’t need to flex the crack open this time as the first scion will hold it wide enough for the second scion to fit. You may need to readjust both scions several times to make sure their bark aligns with the host stump’s bark.

Wrap the graft—I once bought and messed with grafting tape, but didn’t have any luck with it. However, while creating this series on grafting, I learned that you can coat a new graft with wax, then wrap it with grafting tape to protect it from the elements. This requires heating the wax which seems inconvenient, especially on a cold day… but I’ve never tried it, so don’t let my inexperience keep you from finding a better approach.

I use cotton twine and tree wound dressing. Tie the twine around the stump at the bottom of the crack (I use a clove hitch, but any knot will do). Then, wrap the twine around the stump, working toward the leaf buds on the scions, and laying each successive loop of twine tightly against the preceding loop. Get the last loop of twine as close to the end of the stump as you can without running it up onto the leaf buds of the scions. Finish it off by running the end of the twine through a loop, pulling it tight, and cutting off excess twine.

I tie a clove hitch at the bottom of the split, then catch the end of the twine in the first loop or two as I work my way up the stump.

Waterproof the wrap—Use a water-based tree wound dressing, and coat the cotton twine wrapping. Also, dab tree wound dressing on the end of the stump so no wood shows through. It’s ok if dressing runs into the crack and coats the bottom leaf buds on the scions; make sure you coat all the twine and the stump’s split end.

I use a water-based sealant called Treekote tree wound dressing made byWalter E Clark & Son in Orange, Connecticut. Don’t use the stuff to dress wounds left by pruning, but waterproof your graft with it to keep things from drying out while the scions knit themsleves to the host stump.

When Your Fruit Tree Grafts are Done

A successful graft wakes up more slowly than the rest of your small kitchen garden. There may be leaves on the rest of the tree for a month or longer before your scions show signs of life. Usually, the first change appears in a scion’s terminal bud; if that opens up, the graft has taken and is likely to knit up with the stump.

Once leaves emerge, remove the protective wrap from the stump. I use the razor-sharp utility knife to slice part way through the coils of twine without going as deep as the bark. This cuts through the loop of twine I tucked under at the end of the wrap and I can unravel the whole wrap from there. Unwrap gently. Sometimes the twine sticks to the tender bark; if you work slowly, you can unstick it without doing too much damage.

 

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Strategies For Grafting Fruit Trees

You’re looking at scions set in the split stump of a small branch that conveniently sprouted two seasons ago. This graft points into a space that could really use a low branch. Notice the leaf buds where the scions meet the stump. The most rapid growth occurs around leaf buds, so the design of the graft encourages the scion to grow into the stump.

It’s pruning and grafting time in my small kitchen garden, as it must be for nearly everyone in hardiness zone 6 and lower (north of zone 6). But time is running out. You should stop pruning when the leaf buds on your trees start to plump up in preparation to open, and that usually happens in early April.

My last five posts have been about grafting and pruning. I hope you’ve put the information to use. This post and the next one finish the series. This post presents my thinking about grafting onto an old established tree and the next post talks you through building a graft step-by-step. In my previous post, I described the equipment I use for grafting and introduced a video that takes you through the procedures I follow to graft red apple tree scions onto a green apple tree… so please read that one and watch the video if you want to get started immediately.

Harvesting Stock for Scions

You can harvest grafting stock all winter and store it until you’re ready to work. I harvest stock as I prune in late winter. When I can spend a half hour, I choose a problem to sort out in my red apple tree and take out a limb or two. Then I cut twelve-inch twigs off the ends of the small branches and put a bunch in a makeshift bucket.

If I have a lot of grafting to do, I focus on it almost exclusively until pruning season is drawing to a close. Then I stop grafting and make a mad dash through whatever pruning is left to do.

Graft onto Thin Branches

I like to graft onto very small branches—ones that are about a half inch in diameter. The technique, summarized, goes like this:

  1. Cut off the root branch and leave a stump.
  2. Split the stump across the middle, creating a one-to-three-inch crack.
  3. Whittle a scion and insert it on one end of the split.
  4. Whittle a second scion and insert it in the other end of the split.
  5. Wrap and waterproof the graft to protect it from the elements.

I’ve grafted into branches as wide as two inches across, but a branch that heavy requires one more tool than I usually carry (see box).

Graft to Larger Branches

The grafting technique I use is very easy to duplicate. Other methods require more precise cutting to align scions with root stock. There are special tools available that will cut the end of a scion and a socket on the root stock in which to insert the scion. Using such a tool, you can graft onto branches that are too large to split with a knife.

The technique I teach here works with any branch that you can split across the center with a knife. I’ve had luck with branches up to about 1.5 inches. The technique of cutting off the branch and then splitting it applies as well to these larger branches as to smaller ones. However, when you’re ready to insert scions, a utility knife is too flimsy to hold open the split on such a thick branch.

To deal with this problem, I put a flat-head screwdriver in my equipment bucket. To open the split, I work the tip of the screwdriver into the center of the branch—pointing straight into the split. I keep the screwdriver as far as I can from the bark ends of the opening, and use it as a lever to pry the branch open as I set scions in place (below).

When grafting into a thick branch—this one is about an inch across—I use a screwdriver to hold the split open as I place scions. Here, the scion isn’t all the way into the crack, but the bark aligns well with the bark of the stump. You can see that the scion will bulge out a little once it’s in position.

I cut a selected branch off square about two inches from where it attaches to the tree. I try to preserve the bark at the cut, so I use a fine-toothed saw for thicker branches, and sharp bypass pruners for thinner branches.

In an old, established tree, there may not be many conveniently-located small branches to receive grafts. This was the case with my ugly green apple tree. Knowing too little about grafting, I jumped in and started scions on large branches in poorly-chosen locations. I’d encourage you, instead, to prune your old problem trees for a season or two before you start grafting in them. Pruning encourages new growth, and in the second year, you’re likely to have many small, young candidate branches on which to graft stock from other trees.

Small Kitchen Garden Guidelines for Grafting

Here, in no particular order, are things I keep in mind as I work to convert my green apple tree into a red apple tree:

After three seasons, this graft is coming together nicely; it will probably produce fruit this season. It’s likely that this winter I’ll graft onto the branch that emerges just below the established graft.

Get the tree under control (if it’s not) by pruning according to the guidelines I presented in Prune Fruit Trees – 3: What and Why. If you’re dealing with a serious problem tree, you might put off grafting for a few seasons as you bring the tree around.

Prune before you graft. As you prune, you may need to climb your tree or at least stand on its branches. Worse, when you cut away old growth, it may fall through the branches. This activity could damage new grafts, so finish the season’s pruning on the host tree before you start grafting on it.

In a big, old tree, do lots of grafts. My grafting technique was poor when I started and I’d have about a 50% success rate. So, by doing 90 grafts in a season, I was confident I’d have 45 survivors. If you do ten grafts along a main branch and they all survive, crowding each other, you can prune some off in subsequent seasons.

Align bark. When I tell you that the bark on a scion must align with the bark in its host stump, I mean that the edges of the bark must align. The curve of the scion is tighter than that of the host stump, so the scion will bulge slightly out of the crack in which you set it.

Graft onto short stumps. Leave as little of the original wood as it practical; this reduces the chances of the host tree putting out competing branches that you’ll need to prune away later.

Graft to fill spaces. Especially on large, old trees, look for branches that come off the bottoms of larger branches, and graft onto those. Prune growth that comes off the tops of branches. This encourages the tree to develop a low profile and keep fruit within reach.

Graft to “repair” damaged branches. Sometimes, you’ll find damage on a branch you’d like to retain. Cutting the branch off behind the damage, and grafting into the shortened branch can save it while converting it to some other variety of growth.

Stay alert! Whatever knife you use for grafting needs to be extremely sharp. Don’t cut toward your body parts with it! Especially when you’re splitting a stump, don’t hold onto the stump or its parent branch. Sometimes the stump opens up and the knife slides through with little resistance. I did most of my grafting with only nine fingers one season because I got careless.

Please Chime In

Leave a note if you try grafting this season or if you have experience grafting your own plants. I’m very interested in sharing other techniques, so if you’ve tried some and want to write about them, get in touch and we can work out a guest post or a collaboration.

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Grafting in my Small Kitchen Garden

A new graft in my apple tree awaits warmer weather. With luck, sap will rise from the host tree into the scions and trigger vigorous growth that comingles cells from two plants, resulting in a single plant.

How about a crazy science experiment that you can do in your small kitchen garden? I’m talking about combining pieces from two organisms into a single organism that continues living and growing as if this were a natural chain of events. Make a chimera: graft fruit trees.

Grafting fruit trees is the most exotic, satisfying gardening I’ve ever done. It has extended the life of a useless tree, and nearly doubled the apples I harvest each fall.

Why I Graft

My small kitchen garden boasts six mature fruit trees: three apple, one pear, and one peach tree that came with the house, and a second peach tree we planted when the original fell over several years ago (the fallen tree still produces a good crop of peaches each summer). One of my apple trees produces delightful red apples that are great for eating and for cooking. Another produces red apples that are crisp and flavorless, though they always look great. The third tree produces green blemished, scabby apples that are mostly water and have no flavor.

Last winter’s graft looks messy, though I did remove one scion after they both started growing. As sloppy as this looks, in two more growing seasons it’s likely to smooth out, and in four or five seasons, the branch will be a consistant diameter; you won’t notice the grafting scar if you don’t look for it.

After six years of despising the green apple tree, I was ready to cut it down and make room for a replacement. I had bow saw in hand when it dawned on me: I’d always been fascinated by grafting; here was the perfect chance to try it.

Grafting is Easy

For a project that resembles the work of Doctor Frankenstein, grafting is surprisingly easy to do. It’s easiest to graft onto a tree that you’ve pruned for the past two seasons; such a tree will have young, thin branches ideal to receive scions taken from another tree.

Grafting is a late winter activity, though you can graft as long as your trees are dormant. A graft can essentially drown in sap if you assemble it while the tree is active. When terminal leaf buds become plump and ready to open, stop pruning and grafting.

As a winter project, grafting gets you outside when most people aren’t in their yards. For me it’s a quiet, contemplative time when I meet unsuspecting birds who alight before they notice there’s a human in their tree.

My homemade gear bucket holds bypass pruners, a utility knife, cotton twine, and tree wound dressing. I have a similar bucket to hold grafting stock that I carve into scions as I assemble a graft.

How to Make a Graft: Equipment

It takes me from five to ten minutes to assemble a graft. That’s long enough that I want to be comfortable while I’m working. It takes two hands, so I like to have a stable perch; I usually work on a step ladder. It provides a stable base and something to lean against or sit on depending on circumstances.

To gather stock from which to make scions, I use typical pruning gear (I wrote about it in Prune Fruit Trees – 2). I also use a retractable utility knife, a ball of cotton twine, and a container of tree wound dressing. I carry these in makeshift buckets I cut out of gallon milk jugs. Each jug has twine strung through its handle and up through its neck to encourage it to hang upright from a tree branch where I’m working.

While I’m grafting, I constantly shift gear among my bucket, my pockets, rungs on the ladder, and tree branches.

What, no Grafting Knife?

There are several styles of knives available called “grafting knives.” One style of grafting knife is supposed to be ideal for bud grafting, which I haven’t yet tried. Another style would obviously be useful for the types of grafts I make. Such a knife costs close to thirty dollars. My utility knife cost about four dollars, and replacement blades come in inexpensive packs of 5. Were I to snap a blade on my utility knife each season (I tend to snap one every third year), I’d spend less in 20 years than I would to buy a grafting knife.

If I were developing nursery-quality grafting skillls, I’d invest in specialized tools. There are some clever, expensive devices that will fit scions to large branches, or mate two branches of identical diameters. The technique I use is somewhat primitive, but it works… and it’s a bargain.

If it’s not cold in late winter, it may already be too late for grafting. Given the coldness, warm clothes are useful… but don’t wear garments you like. I’ve slopped tree wound dressing on winter coats, pants, sneakers, and gloves… tree wound dressing doesn’t wash out easily.

Get Grafting

I’ll continue a written discussion about grafting in my next post. In the meantime, I’ve created a video that takes you through every step. The video is nine minutes and 50 seconds long, and includes close-up photos of critical issues. It’s much better information than I had when I started grafting, and it should be enough to get you going. Please watch, and check back here soon for further details and thoughts I wasn’t able to include in the video. Please enjoy:

 

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Pruning and Grafting

My small kitchen garden is coming out of dormancy a few weeks too early for my taste. I usually prune my fruit trees through March, and graft from one tree onto another throughout the month. With temperatures in the first week of March going over 60 degrees Fahrenheit, I’m concerned the buds on my fruit trees will plump up, and I’ll run out of time.

At Least Prune in Your Small Kitchen Garden

Pruning is critical to the long-term health and manageability of your fruit trees, so get it done before the sap runs. By pruning while the tree is dormant, you give the exposed green wood a chance to dry out before sap is moving through it. Just a few days’ drying is enough to seal a wound and keep it from leaking sap that could attract insects and nurture molds and microorganisms.

My past three posts have been about pruning, and I’m putting together a post about grafting. While working on these, I found a most curious growth in one of my apple trees and thought I’d share it.

A branch emerges from the trunk near the bottom-left of the photo and runs diagonally up and right. Where it crosses another branch, the two have grown together. Grafting exploits this natural malleability, letting you easily attach branches from one tree to another where they bond to their new home.

Apparently, two seasons ago a young branch rested in the crotch of a second young branch. Even though I had attempted some grafts on the same trunk, I hadn’t noticed this crossing of existing branches; in my series on pruning, I encourage you to eliminate such crossings to prevent damage to bark and competition for light.

As you can see in the photo, the two branches have grown together. I have no use for either branch—this is a tree that, through grafting, I’m converting from a green apple tree into a red apple tree (I’ll explain in my next post). Both branches are green apple tree stock. Because of their novelty, I may leave them, though I’d rather all the tree’s energy went into producing red apples.

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Prune Fruit Trees – 3: What and Why

Look to Learn

When you’re learning something, it’s useful to look at examples of what you’re trying to achieve. I encourage you to do that with pruning: find a local commercial orchard and ask for a tour with emphasis on the trees. Do this in March and you may get to see a professional pruner in action. If you can’t get a tour, at least get where you can examine some trees. Well-tended trees can be very distinctive when they’ve dropped their leaves. Seeing how professionals shape their trees may inspire your approach to pruning.

A most amazingly frigid cold descended on my small kitchen garden yesterday. That’s actually helpful because the last week of February felt like spring, and I need a few more weeks of winter; I’m still pruning and grafting in my fruit trees.

If you’ve been following Your Small Kitchen Garden blog, I’ve been sharing with you thoughts about pruning apple trees… and most other deciduous trees. In the past two posts, we’ve laid the groundwork for pruning. In the first, we talked about reasons to prune your fruit trees, and offered some very broad guidelines. In the second post, we looked at pruning tools, and discussed the basic technique for cutting branches shorter or altogether removing them. This post offers describes what to prune and why.

A Pruning Operations Checklist


A branch in my pear tree snapped under the weight of fruit. The scar is a portal for disease and insects, so I’ll prune it away this winter. Notice the many healthy branches that are competing to take the place of the broken branch. I’ll prune most of those away as well.

Here, vaguely in order of priority, are the guidelines I follow when pruning apple trees… or peach trees or pear trees. These guidelines will work as well with all temperate climate deciduous trees:

1. If your tree is a chimera (root stock and fruiting stock grafted together), don’t prune off everything above the graft. Root stock may grow into a viable tree that even produces fruit, but not likely fruit you’d want to eat. So, if any branches emerge from the root stock (below the grafting scar), cut them off; undesirable root stock growth will compete with grafted stock.

You almost certainly won’t be able to identify the original graft on an older tree, but if the tree puts out young branches within a foot of the ground, they should go. Sadly, new, young branches sprouting low on the trunk of an old tree are a clue that the tree is unhealthy.

Finding Tools

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

2. Prune all dead wood as closely as possible to live wood. If you find a live branch that has a lot of dead branches protruding from it, look for health issues with the live branch: Is the bark cracking? Is there obvious rot? Has the branch been bent severely? Are there holes in the bark? If there are a lot of dead branches on a live branch, the live branch is probably dying. You don’t need to remove it (yet), but do so if removing it fits easily with the rest of your pruning plan.

3. Prune away branches that have splits, cracks through the bark, peeling bark, or obvious rot. Fungus is a sign that a branch is only partly alive—but a healthy branch may have algae, moss, and even lichens growing on it.

Three branches of about the same diameter run nearly parallel. Branches that emerge from these intertwine, competing for sunshine. If these branches all emerge from the same “parent” branch, it makes sense to remove two of them. If they emerge from separate parents, removing competing sub-branches and shortening one or two of the larger branches shown may be the better choice.

4. Prune to rid trees of branches that touch each other—or that are growing into the same space as other branches. Touching branches rub in the wind, making holes in the bark. They might also trap water that promotes rot and attracts insects. Branches growing into the same space compete for sunlight. Generally, preserve the healthier branch, and remove the weaker one.

5. Don’t make one branch do the work of several. It’s an easy mistake to make: You find three or four main branches whose lesser branches grow into the same space. Removing all but one of the main branches would simplify the tree. However, it would be better to preserve the main branches and prune lesser branches from them. This encourages new growth from the main branches, and might produce lesser branches to fill the tree out in other directions.

6. Prune branches from above to let light onto the branches below… and to let light into the middle of the tree. A tree north of the equator may need more severe pruning of its southern branches as those shade lower branches on the north side of the tree. My apple trees are on a north-facing hill, so the lower, northern branches see little sunlight. While the trees grow generally up, newer growth tends to lean southward, and those low, northern branches curve around the rest of the tree.

Here’s my best apple tree with a six-foot step ladder for scale. The tree is out of control; I’ll never be able to reach apples in those crazy high branches. Notice that the tree seems to reach out over the stepladder with only low branches on the opposite side of the trunk. Yes: the stepladder is on the south side of the tree. New growth follows the sun, particularly when you don’t prune each season.

7. Prune off branches that offend your sense of aesthetics or practicality. What do I mean? Aesthetics: does the tree suite your eye? Does it fit into your small kitchen garden’s landscape? Does it block a view you wish you had? Practicality: I hate ducking under branches when I mow the lawn; I don’t want my fruit trees to branch in the first six feet of trunk. You may not care about ducking, but does the tree block a window or shade a planting bed? Once you’ve taken care of the big problems (which may require a season or two of pruning), move on to shaping the trees so they make sense to you.

8. Don’t cut really thick branches if you can avoid it, and especially resist cutting the tree’s leader. A big scar stresses the tree and makes it more susceptible to disease. Cutting large branches may start the tree into decline.

9. Don’t paint pruning cuts with sealant or paint. These may prevent the tree from healing properly.

10. Don’t prune within one-year-old growth. The last few inches of a tree’s branches are the previous season’s delicate growth. Cut off some of it, and the rest might dry out and die. To shorten a branch, cut farther down the branch in the 2nd or 3rd year’s section. If there are spurs sticking out from the branch beyond the pruning point, you’re cutting within older growth.

Breaking Rules

Especially when you’re recovering an old, neglected tree, all of these guidelines come into play. But guideline number 8 will give you the greatest challenge. Three of the five fruit trees that came with our house were simply too messy; I cut several large branches to limit their height and encourage spreading and enlarging of the lower branches.

Caution When Shortening

When you cut a branch shorter to promote new growth, leave at least three leaf buds or branches between the cut and the point where the branch is attached. This gives the branch more chances to thrive; if you leave just one bud and it dies, the branch will likely go with it.

I did the most severe pruning in a tree I didn’t like. My thinking? If I kill it, I have one more excuse to cut it down. In that tree, I cut out the leader and several side branches that had grown as thick as the leader and ran parallel to it. These were five- and six-inch diameter trunks.

Most of the large cuts I made have healed well. However, the most severe cut didn’t heal, and the wood is rotting a hole into the tree. The tree isn’t in great health, and I expect it won’t outlive me (knock wood)… though I’m trying to engineer it for longer life.

If you’re going to cut such large branches:

1. Cut side branches close to the tree’s trunk with the saw blade running parallel to the trunk.

2. Cut the leader just above several healthy branches that can compete to replace the leader once it’s gone.

3. When cutting a vertical branch—particularly a very thick one, cut at a bias so you don’t leave a horizontal surface; water should run easily off of the newly-exposed wood.

It’s best to shape a tree when it’s young and keep it under control so you never have to cut branches more than an inch or two in diameter.

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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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