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Five top tips for the winter pruning of fruit trees

Apple and pear trees trained as free-standing bushes are best pruned every winter to ensure a good cycle of fruiting wood. January is a great time to carry out this garden maintenance task. Why do you need to prune established fruit trees? Well, trees that are not pruned become less productive and congested with old branches. Unfortunately many gardeners are scared of pruning. They fear they might damage or inadvertently harm the tree by excessive pruning. But these fears are unfounded, as with a little help and information pruning is not all that difficult. So here are Ladybrook Nursery’s 5 top tips for pruning apple and pear trees.

How much should you remove?

Ideally you should aim to take between 10-20 per cent of the overall canopy off in any one winter. To ensure that you prune evenly, it is best to work your way around the tree to produce an even and attractive shape. The trick is to take off just enough. If you fear your pruning maybe being a little too enthusiastic, then stop. If more branches still need to be removed, you can always do that next winter.

Generally speaking, the more you prune; the stronger the regrowth – if the tree is healthy. However if you prune too hard your tree is likely to produce vigorous upright branches called ‘watershoots’. The biggest problem with watershoots is that they have a habit of crowding the crown. If your tree already has watershoots, they should be pruned back by about a third to encourage branching. If in doubt, remove watershoots from their point of origin.

Know your goals

Your ultimate aim is to take out a bit of old wood each winter, to stimulate new growth. But the majority of the wood that fruits best should be quite young – that is one to four years old. Your pruning should also aim to create an open centre to your tree. This allows more light into the canopy to ripen the shoots and fruit, and improves air movement which discourages diseases.

Avoid drastic pruning

Try to stagger your pruning cuts throughout the canopy. That way, the regrowth too will be even. Don’t be tempted to only prune the top branches, as this is where all the new growth will shoot up from. All you’ll be left with is a thicket of young, non-fruiting shoots that you’ll probably end up pruning off every year in exasperation. Think of pruning more as a thinning out process, where you selectively remove or shorten branches here and there as you move around the tree.  Focus on areas where the growth seems more crowded.

Avoid very big and very little pruning cuts

Most of your pruning cuts will be to branches 1-5cm in diameter. A fully pruned tree might only need 10-20 pruning cuts in total. If your fruit trees are very old, try to resist the temptation to prune off large limbs. If you do that you increase the risk of decay. As a general rule, think twice before cutting into branches that are more than 10-12cm in diameter. If you must prune those branches, trace them away from the tree to see if there are narrower sections, perhaps where it forks, and prune there instead. Avoid leaving a stub.

Do you need to use a pruning paint?

No, there is no need to use a pruning paint for cuts on apple or pear trees. However, the use of pruning paints is sometimes advisable on plums, cherries and other members of the Prunus family as these are particularly susceptible to disease through pruning cuts.

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