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I am so grateful that my husband Andy is in charge of the orchard. Fruit tree maintenance, I am convinced, is an art. There are details to pruning that can make or break good fruit set, branch structure and ability to pick when the limbs are laden with ripe fruit. While I understand the basics, I am glad Andy is the one that executes the task.
A healthy fruit crop from the orchard can be achieved by doing a few things this time of the year. Some late winter pruning is critical to healthy fruit trees and fruit production: over-grown trees become too dense which invites pest problems and encourages over fruiting (quantity instead of quality) of lots of small fruit. Pruning can be done any time after the threat of harsh winter weather is over until just before the tree is in full bloom. It looks like this year is going to be mild one so no reason to put off the chore any longer! Prune out any dead or diseased wood, all the suckers that may emerge from branches or the base of the tree, any branches that grow inward and crowded limbs.
In general terms, prune young trees (under 5 years old) by removing new or young shoots at their branch origin. This thinning technique helps the young tree develop stronger primary branching and selected shoots, the skeleton of the tree, if you will. For older trees, primary cuts should be made to thin the tree and allow light to penetrate the tree. Remove limbs and branching all the way back to the collar for faster healing around the cut. Have a diluted solution of household bleach nearby to dip your pruning tools in so that the potential of spreading a disease from one tree to another is eliminated. This is especially important if you had evidence of fireblight in your trees last year. Blackened branch tips and lesions are indicators and if you prune out this dead wood without cleaning your tools you may very well spread the fireblight and have a re-infection this season.
It is also important to understand that different species of fruit require different pruning techniques to maximize the health and harvest of the fruit. I highly recommend requesting fruit tree care information from your County Extension Service for the most complete descriptions of pruning techniques. The majority of our orchard is apples, for example, so Andy shapes apples to take on a whorled, scaffolding of 3 to 4 main branches; pears are similar to apples but you allow 6 to 8 main branches. Pears and apples can have their main leader headed-off (cut back to the next lateral branch) when the trees reach about 10 feet; this helps at harvest time, keeping fruit in reasonable reach. To fine-tune the pruning of apples and pears you must thin the spurs, too. The spurs are the little stubs on main branches that grow about one-fourth of an inch each year. Foliage and flower emerge from these spurs, in alternating years. Thin these spurs and you get better spacing and larger fruit.
Fertilize your fruit trees in late February or early March. We opt for a mulching layer of composted manure to feed the trees a little extra in early spring instead of synthetic forms like ammonium nitrate. A small home orchard can reasonably get away with this natural approach and still have good production.
Some fruit tree pests can be controlled by using a dormant oil spray just before bud break. Dormant oil is high-grade, lightweight oil that smothers pests when applied to the tree branches and trunk. Wait for a day where temperatures are above 45 degrees and remain so for at least 48 hours (this should be easy this year.); and the tree must be dormant still!
The best way to insure a good harvest is to start by selecting disease resistant varieties. Asian pears are more tolerant of insect and disease problems; and Liberty, Jonafree, GoldRush and Sir Prize are just a few disease resistant apples that are recommended for Kentuckiana.