Pruning: The principal Art of a Gardner

The principal Art of a Gardner, consists in pruning: for which observe these rules:
Learn first to know the bearing buds from the leafe buds, & those which will be fruite-buds next yeare; sparing all the fruite buds on standard Apples, Peares & wall-fruite with discretion.
(John Evelyn, Directions for the Gardiner: 106).

I am sadly lacking in that discretion about pruning implied by John Evelyn. However, I can learn first to know a fruit bud from a leaf bud by asking advice from more experienced gardeners, as, until now I would be loath to count myself a Gardner, in Evelyn’s sense.

February is cold, but there’s plenty to do: repairs, refelting the shed roof, cleaning tools, preparing beds for spring planting, tidying, getting things in order, feeding the birds. Pruning has never seemed to be one of them, as I’ve not had the confidence to tackle it properly. But this is when we should be pruning our fruit trees. I’ve always meant to do it – through the winter months to February, March at a stretch. Instead, we’ve taken the worst course, hacked branches off when they’ve got in the way or were broken, damaging our smaller apple tree through neglect born of ignorance of its needs, of how we might encourage healthier growth.

the small apple tree before pruning

the small apple tree before pruning

We’ve picked apples from our small apple tree since we moved it 6 years ago, but last year, as with most other fruit and vegetables, the tree cropped poorly.  When we took on the allotment we found the tree hidden in the middle of the plot, surrounded by carpet squares covered with moss and weeds. It was barely holding on, was lifted without having to be dug out. Once moved, it almost doubled in size, put out vast numbers of blossom and, for the last 3 or 4 years, has produced significant numbers of golden russeted apples. But, we have neglected it, and it was already badly hacked about, even as a small tree. It bears myriad scars from brutal husbandry.

The old gnarled apple next to our shed fared just as badly. Broken branches had been tied up with wire instead of being pruned out. We’re on a hillside in Roedale Valley and our tree looks as if it had been hit by severe winds back in the storm of 87 – it stands at an angle leaning up the valley, so the tips of the branches are impossible to reach without, at least, a 12 foot ladder. Over recent years it’s provided fruit for the birds with sufficient untouched for us to have fruit tarts, eve puddings, and baked apples regularly through autumn. Last year we had none. The blossom was caught by the cold and what struggled through was only intermittently pollinated as the winds and rain swept up our allotment valley: it produced a few small fruit to be worried at by birds. This year we really did have to tackle the trees in order to have something worth picking, come autumn.

The old apple tree before pruning.

The old apple tree before pruning.

I volunteer occasionally on a local community food project, where I learn much more than I could ever contribute: which turnips bulk up if planted late; how to mulch broad beans and save on watering; which leafy veg survive cold; when I should sow my winter salad crops to ensure a crop over the winter. They also have an amazing selection of tree and bush fruit growing across the Project. When we decided to tackle our fruit trees properly, inevitably it was to Whitehawk that we turned for advice. A time was agreed, soup promised, tools readied.

John came up to our allotment last Saturday. We walked round our two trees and he talked me through the differences between wood forming buds and fruit buds, fruit spurs, leaders, exactly those aspects of fruit tree anatomy recounted by Evelyn from his own observations. John decided to tackle the small tree first: we walked round it and checked its shape or lack of, its relationship to the sun and wind, where the branches overlapped, what was growing around and under it. A tip he gave was to shake the tree and see where and how the branches crossed or knocked against one another, help identify where they might best be pruned. He looked at some of the damage on one of the trunks and showed how to encourage wood to form over a scar. We discussed the alchemy of plant growth, how fruit buds may change back to wood buds in some circumstances, depending on variety. Of how pruning branches can redirect energies from one part of the tree to another, rebalancing fruit and wood production, encouraging branches to strengthen. It seems that a tree this size can only really sustain 20 good fruit at the most, by the end of the season, so taking out fruit spurs is necessary. We removed downward pointing spurs, those pointing north which wouldn’t get any sun once leaves formed and thinned out overcrowded spurs.

The small apple tree after pruning

The small apple tree after pruning

The large tree was seriously damaged and we didn’t think there was much that could be done, but John cut out all the tangled branches, especially those growing skywards, found and cut our cankered wood, then cleaned off the water shoots near the base of the trunk: Take quite away the Water-bows, which are those that grow lowest, are shaded (Evelyn: 106). We rarely have fires as we compost everything we weed or cut down; diseased plants and cankered wood is an exception and should not be composted – our compost heaps aren’t hot enough to confidently destroy diseased material. Yesterday we burnt all the apple wood and kept ourselves lovely and warm.

scar repair on the small apple tree

Scar repair on the small apple tree

Both trees are underplanted with spring bulbs, all very picturesque, but these will have to be moved elsewhere, probably to the hedges. The next task is to clear the ground and mulch at the drip line where new roots form (the line around the tree where rain will drip from the branch ends) to feed both tree and roots.I’ve found my copy of the RHS guide to pruning and understand the advice, having been talked through the reasons for pruning in practice. I’m left handed and must source a good pair of left-handed secateurs, instead of using our right-handed ones upside own – doesn’t make for good clean cuts. I’ll observe both trees as they grow and put out blossom, check the trees on the Food Project to see how they’ve been pruned, ask questions. Learning from experts is important, but building my knowledge over time, through practice, is really the only way I’m likely to develop the confidence to tackle pruning on my own, next winter.

The old apple tree after pruning

The old apple tree after pruning

Christopher Brickell, The RHS Encyclopedia of Practical Gardening: Pruning, 1992, Octopus; London.
John Evelyn: Directions for the Gardiner and other Horticultural Advice, Maggie Campbell-Culver (ed.), 2009, OUP; Oxford.

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