Winter pruning should include thinning branches and cutting back wayward foliage to encourage bountiful fruit.
Winter pruning should include thinning branches and cutting back wayward foliage to encourage bountiful fruit. Photo: Tomasz Kopalski

Owen Pidgeon

Are you ever overwhelmed by the bushiness or the odd shape of your fruit trees when they have lost all of their leaves. A challenge lies ahead but with a sharp pair of secateurs, a saw and a pair of tree loppers you can reshape all of your trees to become fruitful in the coming summer season.

Thank goodness we have plenty of bright sunny days during winter as the sunshine lifts one's spirit for this quest.

Begin by taking out any broken and dead branches. Stone fruits tend to produce more little dead shoots than the pome fruits. Prune off all suckers that have grown up from the base rootstock.These shoots, growing from the base of nearly all fruit trees, will not produce true-to- type fruit. The rooting stock is a hardier varietal used for grafting. Cut right back to the base and do not leave any stumps.

Broken branches are often the result of the tree carrying a heavy crop last season. It is sometimes heartbreaking to see a big branch just hanging off the main trunk but you have no choice but to remove it completely and leave a clean cut behind. It is therefore important to remember that thinning in late springtime should always follow the wintertime pruning. If your trees are well established, height is the next important consideration. Unless you wish to use ladders to pick fruit, trim off all the last season's shoots that rise above 2.5 to three metres.

Pear trees are among the most vigorous with their vertical branches. Cut back hard, either removing the new growth completely or to an outwards- facing bud, so that you will force the tree to spread out to secure its shape.

Then we come to shaping the tree and the related goal of influencing the overall fruit- production levels. This vital aspect relates to taking out entire branches or trimming back the length of branches. You need to eliminate overcrowding, address branches that are crossing over and rubbing on other branches, and also cut back branches that have just grown too long.

When tip pruning or shortening a branch, always cut to a set of buds. This avoids any dead ends appearing. Choosing buds that are growing outwards will contribute to better tree shaping.

Peach, nectarine and plum trees that are well cared for will grow lots of new branches each year and the one-year-old branches will begin to produce fruit in the next season. Pruning may take some time as you choose which of these to remove and which to leave. Generally thin to leave at least a hand width (20 centimetres) between each of the remaining branchlets and cut back the remaining ones by about 50 per cent. This will mean that you have much less to thin off in late spring, in order to harvest good-sized stone fruits. Apple and pear trees produce on two-year-old wood, so you will have longer to wait for a crop and careful pruning becomes more critical. Take out narrow-angled competing shoots that have begun to grow near any selected side branches.

Most apple and pear trees are spur bearing. The spur is a very short-branching stem situated along main branches carrying fruiting flowers. Guard these spurs and allow new ones to develop.

There is one group of apple cultivars that produce their crop differently. The golden delicious, Fuji and Jonathan are the best-known lateral-bearing apple trees, producing their fruit mainly along lateral branches. For these trees, leave some new lateral branches untouched each season to allow the fruiting buds to grow.

Apple and pear trees lend themselves to being trained and shaped. This is quite an important consideration with backyards with limited space. Vase-shaped trees can be grown when you have plenty of open space and would like to sit in the shade of a fully grown tree. Plant four metres apart and train the branches to form a V. This will allow lots of sunlight into the entire tree, brightening up the fruit. In the following years, keep pruning to outside buds to further develop the vase shape of the tree. Orchards have more recently adopted the centre-leader shape, where the main trunk is vertical and there are a number of side branches, which carry all of the fruiting spurs. In your pruning, remember that the more horizontal a branch is, the more fruit it will generally carry. Vertically growing branches will produce lots of leaves and less fruit.

Commercial orchardists use separators or physically tie down branches to establish trees in this manner. Hedgerow systems are a useful alternative for backyards, where space is limited. Many European orchards are now planting in hedgerow formations, sometimes in double rows. Each tree produces less fruit but you can secure a good overall yield and have variety in a smallish area. Apple and pear trees can be planted as close as 1.2 metres apart, perhaps along the back fence.

Finally, for the dedicated artists, there is the espalier form - sometimes referred to as the palmette. Here, you will take the time to tie down and train each branch to form a multi-tiered piece of artwork. Branches can be trained horizontally or at 45 degrees, using a wire structure. In time, fruiting spurs will grow along the branches.

The advantages are that the trees will tend to produce fruit more quickly in the tree's life and all of the ripe fruit can be easily harvested.

This week

■ Plant broad beans directly into the garden bed at a depth of five centimetres and with 10 centimetres between seeds. To get an early spring crop of peas, sow into growing tubs to secure germination. Keep in a sheltered sunny location. When the seedlings are 30 millimetres to 40 millimetres high, plant in the garden and protect from birds and visiting rabbits.

■ Select a good sunny location in your garden to prepare a deep, rich bed to plant out asparagus crowns and rhubarb sets.

■ Prune all two-year-old brambleberry and raspberry vines.

■ Spray citrus trees with white oil or a horticultural oil to control leaf and scale pests.

>> Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard, near Hall.