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Springtime pruning

03/31/04 12:00AM By Henry Homeyer
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(Host) It's still a little too early for most gardening chores, but commentator Henry Homeyer says that it's the perfect time to do a little pruning.


(Homeyer) Spring is such a flirt. One day is bright and warm, the next is snowy or cold. Two steps forward, one step back. This is my least favorite time of the year. There's no cross country skiing, no gardening. I keep my spirits up by starting seedlings in the house, by boiling maple sap, and by pruning my fruit trees.

I'm not sure why so many people avoid pruning. Maybe they fear that pruning is painful for their trees, like cutting off an arm or a leg. Not so. Trees need to be pruned. They need sunlight to make the energy needed for fruit, branches, and roots. A tree with a thick canopy of leaves shades interior leaves, making them almost useless.

A well pruned fruit tree should be open and airy, with enough space between branches that a bird could fly through it without getting hurt.

If you plan to prune a fruit tree, start by walking around it a couple of times, looking for dead, crossing or rubbing branches. Remove those first. Be bold. Instead of snipping tiny twigs, use a sharp pruning saw to take out entire branches. If a branch points straight up or generally down, it does not have a future, so remove it. If it heads into the middle of the tree it should go.

Trees heal themselves at the junction of branches with the trunk -or larger branches- at a place called the branch collar. This is a swollen area that produces chemicals that help to heal wounds and fight off invading disease. So never cut that part off. But don't leave a 2" stub poking out from the branch collar, either.

To recognize the branch collar, look at some larger branches. At their attachment point to the trunk you should see wrinkled bark at the outer edge of the branch collar. It's almost as if Mother Nature drew a dotted line for you to cut along. Smaller branches have a less pronounced wrinkling.

Water sprouts start out as pencil-sized shoots that grow straight up from bigger branches. If you have to remove many each year, you need to open up the top of the tree's canopy to let sunshine in. And if you don't have time to get them now, you can remove them in early August.

Root sprouts on the other hand, pop up around the base of fruit trees. They need to be pruned both for aesthetic reasons, and because they won't ever produce decent fruit. Fruit trees don't grow on their own roots. The tops are grafted to root stocks that determine the size of the tree. So cut off any root sprouts right at ground level before they get big.

I love pruning. It gives me an excuse to get away from my computer on warm, sunny days. I like having a good reason to climb an apple tree. It makes me feel like a boy again.

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist.
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