Pruning fruit trees
To me pruning fruit trees is an art form, and one that I'm not very good at. I enjoy it a lot, but rather as with painting in oil colour I believe that some are intuitively better at it than others. Which is why I spent a lovely day mid March at Rosendals Garden in Stockholm enjoying a one day workshop in pruning fruit trees. The basics are simple enough if the starting point is asking why we prune the tree. When fruit trees are young it is mostly to build a good structure, and as it grows to maintain a healthy specimen. By allowing air into the crown of the tree we lower the risk of disease and pests and at the same time we let the sun in which lets the fruit ripen more evenly. The older the tree, the more its general health and structure needs to be taken into consideration. If in doubt, always ask an expert!
It is of course best to start pruning fruit trees when they are young. A healthy four year old specimen such as the above is reduced by a third to create the beginnings of a sound structure where the central branches create an evenly formed base. It looks scary to make such drastic cuts, but in the long run it will be beneficial. Small branches can be cut with a secateur, but once the branches are 2 cm thick it may be better to switch to a saw. As the branches are heavier, always cut them at least 10 cm from the remaining branch to avoid tearing, before making a second cut close to the remaining branch (as shown in the picture below).
Where a big branch has been removed, it is normal that vigorous upright shoots called watershoots start growing. Conventional pruning wisdom tells us to trim them off, but contemporary thinking encourages us to leave them be for at least a few season as they are part of the healing process. Similarly, when it comes to mature trees, contemporary pruning philosophy is more focused on removing one or two whole branches to let air in rather than thinning out lots of little branches. However, try to avoid taking out branches that are over 10-12 cm thick and be careful not to leave a long stub.
When pruning in winter aim for a 10-20% reduction in canopy, but no more than that as it is quite tough for the tree. Ideally there should be new growth throughout the canopy, so try to avoid only cutting off the top layer as giving a tree a "hair cut" will only encourage more top growth. Above, you see a 10 cm branch in the middle of the tree being removed to giv a better airflow and let light into the canopy. Afterwards the gap that has been left is barely visible as the trees canopy is still evenly distributed. Traditional pruning to encourage new growth is done in winter, but if you only want to encourage fruit growth you may consider pruning in the late summer months July to September. Dead wood can be removed at any time of year.
The charming thing about Rosendals Garden is that they worry not about imperfections in the trees. As long as the rims of old damaged wood has healed, the trees are considered healthy enough to prevail. As the garden is biodynamically kept the biggest jobb of the season is not pruning the many trees they have, but collecting and burning the leaves and fallen fruits to prevent disease spreading. The wood may be used as wood chipping but only in other parts of the garden far enough away from the fruit orchard to ensure nothing can become contaminated, and all tools are religiously cleaned after use. To me this diligence is inspiring, as the devil really is in the details we rarely see as garden visitors.
Talking about details, it is the small details in this beautiful garden that makes it especially charming. I love the little signs with the names of the apples and dates when they were planted and I wish I had thought of it all those years ago when we planted our own orchard! Instead I wrote it in some long lost notebook so by now I have no clue which named varieties I now have in my garden. I also love the simple slate signs that read: "Don't nick our apples! They are for the apple pie!"