Every year, without fail, I’m ready to declare “SPRING!” months before the calendar gives consent. Sometime in February, when a 48-degree day feels like T-shirt weather, the soil peeks its dark little face out of the melting snow and immediately begins talking dirty to me. It might only be February, but this guy can no longer tolerate clean hands and confinement.
The soil isn’t quite yet ready for planting, but there are still plenty of tasks to entertain the eager gardener this time of year. February is the ideal time to prune apple and pear trees, as well as grape vines. These fruit-bearing friends are just about to break their winter dormancy, and send the sap flowing back up from the roots. Soon buds will appear and lush spring growth will not be far behind. Now is the time, before those buds appear, that we want to prune.
Note: For stone fruits, such as cherries, peaches and apricots—trees that are often more susceptible to disease infection after pruning—it’s best to wait until after the buds appear, when they are in their vigorous stage of growth, to assure they have the energy to heal and defend themselves.
When it comes to pruning fruit trees, less is more. The goal of pruning is to coax the tree into growing a sturdy and efficient structure. This assures a healthy, well-shaped tree that provides years of abundant, easy-to-harvest fruit. Too much thoughtless hacking could cause a stress response in the tree, resulting in a flush of sucker production and very little fruit.
Annual spring pruning of fruit trees is fairly simple, providing you know what to look for. Each variety has its own unique approach to an ideal structure. Detailing the technique to training young saplings into these forms is beyond the scope of this article; however, there are some general rules for keeping mature trees healthy and productive.
When choosing which branch to cut, consider that the goal of maintenance pruning is to give each branch as much air and light as possible.
Make sure your tools are sharp and clean. Using pruning shears or a pruning saw, start by removing any branches that emerge low on the trunk or grow towards the interior rather than outward. In the canopy, be on the lookout for branches that cross one another or make contact and rub. If a limb forks with branches of equal diameter and length, select one and remove the other.
Make all cuts as flush as possible with the branch you are removing them from.
Once pruning is complete, clean up and sanitize your tools. It’s a good practice to sanitize well in between the cutting of different trees. Vinegar does a great job, and is less toxic than bleach.
Grape vines can be trained into a number of classic forms, each of which serves a purpose based on space usage and varietal. I’ll assume that, like me, you have somewhat feral grape vines winding through your fence or arbor and the ruthless efficiency of a commercial vineyard is not required. Personally, the aesthetics and appearance of the vine is the most important consideration, and in this regard maintenance becomes more like sculpting than science. If you simply want shade, let the monster loose and put away your pruners! If fruit production is a priority, you are going to want to structure the vine and cut it back regularly to keep it productive.
Like fruit trees, we want to make sure our vines have access to maximum airflow and light, and also make sure the nutrients don’t have to travel too far from the roots to the fruits.
Structurally speaking, our vine is made up of three parts: the trunk, the branching arms or canes and the fruit-producing spurs that come off of them. Starting with the trunk, remove suckers growing from the base of the plant. Next, limiting a vine to two or three main branching canes allows our grape to focus as much energy as possible on developing fruit. Pick the ones with the best structure and growth habit and remove the rest— unless you have an incredibly old healthy vine with a lot of main branches, in which case you may not want to abuse it by removing them.
Finally, and most important, cut back the buds and spurs. How far to cut them back every winter depends on how much fruit it produced last year. If there was little fruit, you want to cut back a lot of the spurs coming off the main branches. On the spurs that are left, limit each one to two buds. If the vine produced quite heavily, then it will be able to support quite a few spurs and you can leave more buds on each of them as well.
Clean up all of your cuttings and make sure to sanitize all of your tools. Once our pruning is attended too, it’s a great time to apply a layer of compost and mulch at the base of both our grapevines and fruit trees, but sparingly. Adding too much nitrogen results in an excess of leafy growth and poor fruit production.
James Loomis is a professional grower and consultant, and teaches monthly workshops on a variety of topics related to regenerative agriculture and urban homesteading. Facebook.com/beyondorganic