Pruning fruit trees is a perfect health remedy for humans suffering daylight deficiency in the dead of winter, and makes the tree healthier and more productive too.
The main aim with all fruit trees and soft bush fruit is to let air circulate between branches and allow each one as much daylight as possible. Cut out weak, wispy shoots and branches that ‘cross over’ each other. By the time you have finished, you should be able to see through the tree and be left with a small number of strong branches.
On a freestanding tree aim for three or four strong side branches and a ‘leader’ – the leading strong and upright branch. This is easier said than done, as different varieties have different game plans, but try and give the tree as much light and air as possible, whatever its shape.
In our orchard rooks tend to perch as high as they can, usually on the precious leader, and snap it off. Once the leader has been broken, you rarely get a single successor, and end up with a shrubbier tree than before. To protect the leader on a new tree, we often tie a bamboo protruding above the top to stop this happening.
Fruit trees set bud in the autumn, so prune healthy shoots to about 6”, which leaves a number of next year’s fruit bearing nodes on each.
When cutting out an unwanted shoot, cut it back to its ‘shoulder’, proud of where it joins the main branch, not flush with it. This allows the cut to heal and keep canker out. Often you get upright and quick-growing water shoots around a former prune, these never bear fruit and should be removed.
If a tree has been left unpruned for decades, and has a great thicket of branches, prune it drastically, all the time with an eye to keeping just a few strong branches. The tree will soon revive itself.
The tree can be shaped however you want if you are feeling creative and lust for a particular shape. Most fruit trees are grown on numbered rootstocks, which dictate how big the tree can grow. Cordons are grown on dwarfing rootstocks such as M7 or M9, full size trees on M25. Soil and climate also affect growth rate, and the subject then gets quite complicated. If you prune an M25 hard, it will simply grow back with a vengeance, and vice versa.
Most professionals prune in the winter, if you have time then pruning in the summer can help keep the tree growing just as you want. And what do you get when you cross an apple with a Christmas tree? A pineapple.