I occasionally wondered: Isn’t this hard pruning cycle putting a big workload on the tree? Each summer the tree pours all its energy into growing those overly long new branches, and then each winter I’d chop them cannabis trellis, trying to keep the tree’s overall height under some semblance of control. And then too, despite my best intentions and hours of work spent pruning, each season the trees still seemed to be a bit taller than the year before.
However, each winter for decades I kept up this hard winter pruning, working with the standard conventional wisdom that it was necessary in order to have a decent tree and a good set of fruit. At the time it made perfect sense to me.
Because of apical dominance, when a tip is cut off, the next bud back from what is now the tip, this bud will normally sprout next. The topmost bud on any strong branch has high concentrations of the natural growth hormone, indole acetic acid (IAA). When we prune grapes (which unlike most pomes and stone fruits, set fruit only on new wood) we have to prune the last year’s wood hard. We cut back to a few large, strong buds. The lower down on the branch a bud is, the larger and stronger it is. Thus, heavy pruning makes plenty of sense with grapes, or others that bloom on new wood, figs, mulberries, and roses. But does this same sort of hard pruning make sense with most fruit trees, trees that do not set their fruit on the current season’s wood?
About a decade ago I read that in order to save money on high labor costs some orchard owners had resorted to pruning only every other year. Yes, they had to cut off more wood, and the pruning work took a bit longer than normal, but overall they were saving some money. The interesting thing, too, was that this every-other-year-pruning didn’t seem to hurt fruit production all that much.
I myself started this every other year dormant pruning and it beat pruning every year, but it still felt wasteful, wasteful of the tree’s stored energy.
Let’s go back to apical dominance for a moment: Because of apical dominance, when a branch tip is cut off, the next bud back from the new tip, this bud should sprout next. The lower the branch is, the thicker the branch will be, and these lower placed dormant buds will also be larger and potentially much more vigorous. Thus heavy pruning, chopping back to these fat lower buds insures lots of vigorous new growth and makes plenty of sense with grapes, and of course with roses, which also bloom on new wood. But apples, pears, apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines and cherries don’t set fruit on new wood, they all bloom on wood that is at least a year old.
A few years ago I made a major switch and started doing almost exclusively summer pruning, pinching really. Every few weeks from mid-spring on, whenever I noticed a new branch growing rapidly, I pinched off the end of it. If you had to use a pair of pruning shears to do this, we’d call it a “hard pinch,” but what I started doing was a “soft pinch.” I merely pinched off, with my fingers and thumbnail, the last inch or two of each fast growing branch.
Most of us gardeners have done some pinching of geraniums, begonias, and especially fuchsias, trying to make them bushier. It works pretty much the same with fruit trees, too. The more often you pinch, the more bud breaks you get and the bushier your tree becomes. I have found with very vigorous branches that in a season of growth, I may have to pinch that same branch three or four times, but it seems well worth the effort. The end result of all this tip pinching is a shorter, more compact fruit tree…and one that won’t need much pruning in winter. The tree benefits too, since it no longer has to pour all that energy into re-growing all that wood each spring. This same energy can then be converted into producing a larger crop of fruit.
There is another pleasant benefit, too, from all this constant snipping and pinching…fewer bugs. Aphids in particular can be a problem on apricots and apple trees, and they almost always take hold first on the softest, newest, fastest growing wood. The pinching removes this soft tip, the part most attractive to insects. The pinching also interrupts the natural apical dominance present in the terminal end of any fast sprouting branch and encourages branching.