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Archives for February 15, 2017

Garden Tips: Fruitful efforts

It’s wet and cold and tree branches are bare or seemingly clustered up in still-green bunches. Nothing seems to be growing, and yet we know there is life and bloom and fruit just waiting to start again when the days are longer and the soil is warmer.

When and how are you supposed to prune your trees at this time of year?

I once took a class on tree pruning at a local community college. The teacher was superintendent of landscape resources for San Mateo County and was responsible for 17,000 trees. The class was thorough and detailed, especially in safety and doing the job correctly the first time.

After finishing the class, my supervisor bought me a harness and ropes, and I started climbing. I pruned olives, oaks, pines, birch, magnolia, redwood, cedar, cypress, camphor, as well as fruit trees like cherry, plum and citrus.

Commercially, fruit trees are often pruned by machines that mow the tops and sides for consistency and reach during harvest. What I have learned over the years is that this really doesn’t work for ornamental gardens. Along with correct placement of fruit trees when planted young, correct pruning throughout their lives not only helps production but makes for a great show in the garden.

One does not have to climb most fruit trees to prune them correctly. A ladder and a pole pruner can do a fine job. One thing I will never forget my pruning instructor saying when talking about pruning fruit trees is “be bold.” This frightened me from the start. What he was saying was that if you know what you are doing, there is nothing to be afraid of. If you don’t know what you are doing, you can be bold in all the wrong places and ruin fruit production for several years.

Know that there are professionals that can do this work for you. There are a few that can teach you how to do it yourself and there are resources online and in books that can be very helpful. My favorite is “The Pruning of Trees and Shrubs,” by Timber Press. If you have trees that have been pruned incorrectly or neglected for many years I recommend getting a qualified arborist to do that work.

1. Stand back and look at your tree. When I first see a tree I look for dead branches. Anything that is unhealthy looking is pretty obviously the first to be dealt with. Pruning these out leaving no stubs becomes the first priority.

2. Look for the overall balance of the tree. Is it favoring one side? Is it thicker in one area of the canopy than the other? In a fruit tree, can you reach all the fruit it produces? It’s hard to see what is needed from directly under the tree. Stand back at least the height of the tree distance from the trunk in order to see the big picture.

3. Look for crossing branches. If more than two are crossing or rubbing, remove the most obvious problem branch first. Stand back, take a look and then go after the next worst crossing branch. Remember, no stubs. Always cut to a lateral branch. This part of the pruning may complete this year’s work. The rule is, for trees that have leaves all year round, take no more than 1/3 of the canopy out per year. For trees that lose their leaves in the winter, half or even more of the canopy in the case of roses, apples, pears and several other fruit trees, can be removed. The goal here is to leave healthy, upright branches with plenty of buds (or budding spurs in the case of fruit trees), and no long, spindly branches to bend over and break off when loaded with fruit. Think of a pitchfork shape with the tines pointing straight up.

There is no need to paint the cuts after pruning trees. It was discovered decades ago that letting the tree heal its own way is the best for the healing and disease prevention.

4. Use the smallest tool possible to get the job done. I do 90 percent of my pruning with a pair of Felco No. 2 pruning shears and an 8-inch folding saw made by Stihl. If I need to cut through anything over three inches I have a Corona saw that is about 15 inches. Be very careful with any of these tools. They can cut you very easily.

5. If pruning a long or heavy branch, I recommend taking it apart piece by piece. It’s much easier and safer to take a branch apart than having it come down on your head whole. Once cut off, a branch cannot be glued back on, so choose carefully. You can stand back part way through and see if that’s enough or if you really do need to take the whole thing off.

6. Make a pile of cut branches near the tree you are pruning. Stand back and evaluate the size of the pile in relationship to the size of the tree. When the pile becomes 1/3 of the size of the canopy of the tree, you are done.

7. Do a final evaluation after cleaning up all the cut branches. This is detail time. Do a little thinning and shaping to finish the job.

Jack McKinnon is a Garden Coach and can be reached at 650-455-0687 or online at

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