Summertime … and the pruning is easy?

I took the plunge and summer pruned our cordoned fruit trees last week. They were looking very leafy and rather unruly – but then I feel plants should be allowed some independence. Which is probably why I’ve put it off for a while. Pruning is a bit like being taken to the vet – they don’t like it, but it’s good for them. The trees were showing some lovely fruit, and fruiting requires huge energy so cutting back leafy unproductive growth should be a help not a hindrance.

It’s just that the fruit trees in our care – the station garden mini-orchard cordons of apples and pears, our plum and my own miniature apple, plums and cherries – refuse to grow like in the gardening books. The books show well-behaved trees (the kind that don’t miaouw and scratch the vet) growing at the proper angle with a satisfying, well-proportioned shape.

And there are the little red bits which show where the perfect, well-positioned cut should take place. There’s a nice clear leader and well-balanced laterals (side branches) with perfectly placed leaves: find the lateral, up 3-5 leaves and snip! Easy – only I think we’ve got sub-laterals of sub-laterals of laterals, and should the snip be on an upward or a downward facing bud?

Through trial and error (and so far our three-year-old trees haven’t given up – on the contrary), I feel like we’re getting the hang of it. Principles are good when practice isn’t like the diagram – so here we go:

  1. summer pruning is key to helping the tree concentrate on producing fruit: some advice is to prune plums after fruiting, others say prune in ‘early summer’, others in late July and for ‘trained trees’ (also read, ‘restricted’ or ‘miniature’), BBC Gardening gives ‘late August’ – so round about now is probably OK?
  2. winter pruning (February?) is about maintaining the structure of the tree; do not prune plums or cherries in the winter because of the risk of infection
  3. plums, cherries, apples and pears fruit on old wood (2-3 years old), not on the new growth – phew, ‘cos I’ve been reining in the springy adolescent shoots
  4. first cut the three ‘D’s: diseased, damaged or dying branches – or any which cross others too close
  5. buds grow at different angles: always cut to a bud going in the direction you want the new shoot – and apparently, horizontal branches fruit better than vertical (hence ‘festooning‘ or tying branches down towards the ground).
  6. according to The Telegraph, “shorten leaders by 6in” and “cut the side shoots (or laterals) to 3 leaves and any sub laterals (secondary shoots from the laterals) to 1 leaf“. The BBC says more or less the same (though the leader cut is given as after ‘two buds of new growth’ but I bet you that’s around 6 inches) – yippee!

Wow, that’s simple, but that’s going to mean an awful lot of pruning. I think some of our ‘laterals’ need to be considered ‘leaders’, so does that elevate ‘sub-laterals’ to ‘laterals’? And then there’s the problem of which way the new growth should go: a bit like cutting hair, it needs a good eye and an experienced hand manipulating super-sharp scissors. Oh dear!

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