Garden · How-To

Happy Holidays and …Pruning?

This time of year brings with it one of my favorite things to do! Decorating my house and seeing joy on my family’s faces when they get gifts is great and all, but what I really look forward to in December is pruning! This may seem a bit …odd, but as a person who doesn’t get to exert control over much, pruning offers me a time to pretend I control my fruit trees. And hey, I can be artful about it too!

December, specifically the Winter Solstice, marks the best time to prune all trees in dormancy. This is especially true of deciduous fruit trees; as soon as that sun starts showing up longer every day, the trees start “waking up” and their growing cycle – so get to that pruning as close to the Solstice as you can! I went out on a sunny day after the holiday madness, and assembled my tools:

My weapons …erm, tools of choice.

I recommend having at least pruning shears and a saw for this work. The nippers and the loppers (smallest and largest of the tools pictured) are handy, but not essential. I also highly recommend having rubbing alcohol on hand to sanitize your blades between trees. There are a surprising amount of diseases that can be transmitted from tree to tree during pruning. Ask me how I know (RIP apple, peach, and cherry trees, we barely knew ye).

First up for a haircut: the “fruit salad” plum tree. We got this tree with the house, and I have been working for five years on getting it to a good place after several years of poor management. It has three varieties grafted onto a rootstock, so pruning is tricky – you can’t over-prune one variety over another, or else that variety will get overgrown and potentially die out. Also, it’s been getting some serious whitefly and aphid infestations, so keeping it airy and open is key!

You’ve got some serious split ends there, plum tree.

I focus on trimming any dead or broken stuff (thanks a ton, squirrels), and then trim all the long whip branches down. I loathe using a ladder to pick fruit, so I prune my trees to be short and stout.

Ah, a nice plum bob.

Next up: the apple tree. This is a Yellow Newtown Pippin apple, the second we have attempted to grow. It’s doing much better than its predecessor, thank goodness, but it’s waging a battle with the salvia behind it for sunlight. I know the salvia is stupid tall, but those long whips are comin’ DOWN.

The light, give me the LIGHT!

There are two reasons for cutting the whips back: 1. those limbs will end up touching the ground or breaking if they actually manage to fruit next year, and 2. see aforementioned loathing of ladders. I adhere to the “tiny fruit tree” method of growing backyard fruit trees pretty closely – I live in an urban environment and honestly who likes climbing ladders.

You are shorter, but you will also be mightier!

Phew! Two down, two to go, but luckily both of the next two trees are easy peasy; they were planted this past summer and are infants. First of the babies is the cherry, which has a really great shape already.

I wish I could take credit for the cute nasturtium border, but I’m pretty sure it was the chickens.

I trimmed the longer branches back to make sure those limbs get stouter as well as triggering growth in a direction I want. You will bend to my will, little tree, my WILL! Um, ahem, anyway, I am looking forward to see how it grows this next season.

It’s for your own good, I promise.

Last but not least, the fig! This one is also a baby, and very, very leggy. It sort of looks like an overly long twig I stuck in the ground but it is in fact alive, I assure you.

I swear it’s a tree not just a stick I planted.

I want to trigger growth out not up, so I give it a little haircut off the top and leave the rest to grow as it wishes. Figs tend to react less predictably to pruning than apples and plums and the like in my experience, so I am a little less aggressive with them. The other trees probably think the fig is just getting preferential treatment. They aren’t wrong – I love figs, so I don’t want to make the tree mad.

It’ll grow into it. I hope.

Those are the trees getting the chop this Winter Solstice! I’m usually on a roll and then start pruning other things at random (I’m looking at YOU, camellia) but lucky for the garden, the baby woke up from his nap so I had to put away the tools and attend to the hungerbeast.

Until the next solstice, trees, until the next solstice. *muahaha*

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