Anyone who buys or inherits a fruit tree faces the intimidating crossroads of how, when and if they should prune.
“It’s one of the most difficult things for people to understand,” said Ross Penhallegon, horticulturist with Oregon State University’s Extension Service. “Ultimately, they make a few cuts and think, ‘Oh, I’m going to hurt the tree,’ and run back into the house to watch TV.”
But without the proper maintenance, production of fruit falls off, diseases increase and frustration goes off the chart. The key at that point is to clear out the center of the tree to let sunlight in, or cut the tree down and plant four dwarf varieties that get to be 10 feet rather than 40 feet.
“I call the big ones man-killer trees,” Penhallegon said. “You have to climb up to the top and spend hours and hours pruning out suckers. You can do that every year or take a lot less time to prune smaller trees. After all, how much fruit do you eat? If a tree produces 20, 40, 50 pounds, most of it hits the ground and you don’t pick it up.”
For 25 years Penhallegon has taught hands-on classes on pruning fruit trees to hundreds of people annually, handing out more than 15,000 of Extension’s Training and Pruning Your Home Orchard. Several workshops are coming up later this month and February in nearby Benton, Linn and Lane counties.
It’s important to read up on pruning, but it can be confusing.
“The key is coming to the class,” Penhallegon said. “Read about pruning, do some pruning and then read about it again. The lights come on, and that’s so liberating.”
Unless you’ve got an emotional connection to the tree, he recommends cutting down out-of-control trees. But if you want to keep it, he’ll teach you to rejuvenate one, too.
Anytime December through February is a good time for pruning.
“We let people know that they can prune their trees fairly hard and still get fruit and not hurt their tree,” he said. “The answer is that every time you prune a branch ask what happens where you’ve pruned. It grows back. Even if you cut it back to six inches, 99.99 percent of the time it grows back, especially apples and pears.”
Before cutting down a tree, check with your city for local regulations.
Penhallegon offers a number of tips for pruning fruit trees.
• Start with the right equipment and don’t stint on price. You’ll want good-quality 18-inch loppers, pruners and a handsaw. If you need to use a ladder, be sure it’s in good condition.
• The best time to prune is February, but any time leaves are off from December through February will work.
• Remove dead, dying and diseased limbs first.
• Take out crossing limbs and remove limbs that grow down or straight up.
• Clear out the center of the tree, and prune the top of the tree more heavily than the lower portion.
• Only take out one-third of the limbs at once.