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Spring is pruning time

Spring? It's still only February! But when you run an orchard, you have to tell seasons by the weather, not by the calendar, and Mother Nature has started giving us a few prime days for pruning our fruit trees. We just have to be ready to use them when they come.

The window for pruning is fairly tight. The task is best done when the trees are dormant, in late fall through early spring. The temperature also has to be somewhere above "frigid," with no expectation of dropping below about 20 degrees in the following week. (I've read that the cut-off temperature is 17 degrees for apples; I don't know what it is for peaches.) We also want the trees to be dry, so we don't spread fungus as we prune. For our comfort, it's nice if the day is somewhat warmish and the ground not too muddy. It's hard to find very many days like that in our Indiana winters, and, in order to reach all of our 150-200 trees before they wake up, we need several.

Last year, we didn't really know what we were doing, or what we had to work with. We weren't even sure what kinds of trees we had. Apples and pears are somewhat indistinguishable, as are peaches, nectarines, and cherries. We were afraid to remove too much wood, so we limited the pruning to the broken branches, and did just a little bit of thinning, too. Now we know that we should expect to remove about a third of the wood, so we're working more aggressively.

After working a couple days this month, I've settled into my approach. When I start on a tree, I run through my checklist of which parts to cut: Broken or damaged branches? Snip. Crossed or rubbing branches? Snip. Branches growing toward the center of the tree? Snip. Branches growing straight up or down? Snip. Branches growing out the underside of another branch? Snip. Branches too close together? Snip. Branches growing too low on the trunk or out of the rootstock? Snip. Then I step back, look at what's left, and usually cut a little more.

No longer do I agonize over cutting off healthy wood; if it's growing in the wrong place, then it gets severed. I know I'm cutting off a lot of last year's growth (the parts that will flower and set fruit this spring), and I also know that there's a lot of fruiting wood left on the tree, and that the tree can't support as much fruit as it can set anyway. And I keep reminding myself that dormant pruning stimulates growth.

Tom's working on the big old apple and pear trees; I did the cherries and I'm working through the dwarf apples. I've encountered some dwarf trees that haven't thrived at all in the time we've watched them. Since I've already almost written them off, I'm experimenting on them: I'm pruning drastically, almost back to the scrawny trunk, in hopes that they might be rejuvenated. Who knows? It might work. I'll let you know.

We're racing the clock to finish in time. Already I'm seeing a few buds start to swell--and we haven't even started the peaches yet.

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