Even though it’s a winter month, February is a great time to start prepping your yard for the upcoming summer. With the ground and plants mostly thawed, it’s the best time of year to prune your fruit trees.
“February is the best month because you can actually see the bare branches,” advises Thom Sawyer, tree expert with Millcreek Gardens. “You don’t want the sap to be running yet.”
Pruning has different effects on different types of branches. For example, topping a vertical branch creates a bushing effect. This is popular for many fruit trees. Topping horizontal branches encourages a renewal of fruit wood and thins off excessive fruit.
Removing excess branches also allows other branches of the plant to thrive by increasing the plant’s productivity. Without the clutter, they receive more sunlight and water. The best way to prune a tree can be done in the following manner:
1. Always visually inspect the tree before you begin and identify the leader and later branches. Most main side branches should only be about one-third of the total width of the trunk. Try to keep branches that are angled at around 30-degrees upward.
“Remember never to remove more than twenty-five percent of the branches,” says Sawyer. Not only does removing more than this recommended amount not look right for a couple of years, but it can cause fatal damage to the tree.”
2. Make sure your tools are sharp. Not only is this easier for you, you always want to be sure your cuts are clean.
3. Use the right tools for the right job. Smaller hand-held shears work best on younger trees, pole pruners are the easiest and most efficient for high branches, etc.
4. Cut close to the tree for small branches. If the branch is large enough to have formed a collar, cut just outside of it.
5. If shortening a branch, make the slightly angled cut about a quarter inch above a lateral bud or another lateral branch. (If you don’t know what this means, you probably shouldn’t be pruning the tree yourself.)
6. Wash your tools after every use. This prevents fungus and disease from spreading. A 1:10 ratio of bleach and water does the trick. Sawyers stresses this, as it’s only of the easiest ways to spread infection.
Though it can be a physically exerting process, many tools exist to make pruning easier. Chainsaws, portable buck saws, rope saws, varying sizes of shears, pole pruners and loppers are available at almost every garden supply center.
Suckers are the tiny branches that form out of the base of the tree trunk. These can be removed at any time and are best removed with simple hand shears.
While it’s best to prune in the dormant months, if you see a dead branch at any time of year, cut it off immediately. Dead branches are commonplace, but it could be infested with fungus or bugs that will only spread to other parts of the tree. “The branch died for a reason,” says Sawyer, “get rid of it.”
Pruning season last until around mid-March.