TIME TO PRUNE Andy Wilson (hand holding saw) giving a previous fruit-tree pruning and maintenance workshop hosted by the Westport Sustainability Group. Also pictured are Willie McDonagh (on left hand edge) Caithriona McCarthy, Chris Harmon and Pat Bracken.
Taking care of your fruit trees
Growing your own
The appearance of the first spring buds on fruit trees and bushes is a timely reminder it is the time of year to attend to pruning and maintenance tasks in the fruit garden. For apples, pears and most varieties of soft fruit, pruning should be done now. However, cherries, plums and damsons are best pruned in the summer months.
The first task is to review the general area in which the fruit garden is situated, to make sure it isn’t becoming crowded by adjacent shrubbery and trees. Most types of fruit do much better in full sunshine, so nearby vegetation should be pruned well back.
Fruit also does better in ventilated gardens, as too much shelter increases the humidity around the trees, encouraging the growth of mosses and lichens on the trunk and branches, and providing favourable conditions for disease. There is a compromise to be found here, as fruit gardens that have insufficient shelter generally are much colder and can suffer wind damage when the fruit trees are flowering or bearing fruit.
Keep back the weeds!
Grass and other plants, particularly the shallow-rooting ones, compete with fruit trees for water and nutrients, especially during spring and early summer.
It is advisable to keep a 1- to 2-meter-diameter circle around each fruit tree completely weed free. However, the soil should not be left bare, as this hastens nutrient loss through leaching or oxidisation. Instead, soil should be covered with a mulch of rotted bark or twigs, or soaked newspaper or cardboard.
The easiest way to use paper and cardboard is to soak it in a wheelbarrow full of water, and spread thickly around the tree. Use whole newspapers at a time, not individual sheets. For best effects use several layers of newspapers. It’s best to leave a small space immediately adjacent to the tree trunk clear of heavy mulches, as wet soggy material can encourage the spread of disease.
Pruning is sometimes perceived as a black art requiring years of initiation, but the reality is that basic techniques can be learnt in a few hours.
Pruning’s three-fold purpose is to develop a good, open shape allowing in light and air; to remove damaged or diseases branches; and to encourage the development of fruiting spurs on young wood.
For successful fruiting, trees should be pruned into an open shape, where there is good space for fruiting spurs to develop. Crowded branches should be thinned out. On branches that are to be retained, the previous year’s growth – distinguished by its lighter coloured bark – should be cut back to one-third length.
Damaged branches provide entry points for disease. They should be cut back to a good side branch, or removed back as far as the shoulder with the main trunk. When cutting back to a main branch or trunk, don’t cut flush with the trunk but at the point where the shoulder of the side branch narrows. It is usually easiest to cut back in several stages, especially with large branches.
The first cut is used to remove the bulk of the material, the second to cut back to within a short distance of the shoulder while the third or final cut is used to make a very neat cut at the shoulder itself. Avoid old, worn, blunt, inappropriate or rusty pruning tools! Large cuts can be sealed with a proprietary pruning compound or linseed oil.
The Westport Sustainability Group is running a one-day workshop on Fruit Tree Pruning and Maintenance, on Saturday, March 19. A number of other horticultural workshops are taking place during March April and May. For further details, visit www.westportsustainabilitygroup.ie, email email@example.com or phone 098 28647 (evenings).
Andy Wilson is a founding member of the Westport Sustainability Group, which is involved in many food-growing initiatives in the Westport area, including the Railway Walk Linear Orchard project. He can be contacted at 087 6714075 or firstname.lastname@example.org.