Fruit trees require special pruning
by Pat Munts
Over the last few years, people have been taking the idea of locally grown food to new heights. In addition to planting edible plants among the standard ornamentals, homeowners are adding all kinds of fruit trees to their landscape, creating a personal orchard.
Fruit trees make an attractive addition to any yard and come in sizes that will fit in nearly any sunny spot, including in a large pot on a patio. However, Dustin Marchello, owner of A-rated Live Earth Inc. in Gladstone, Ore., says fruit trees take a lot more maintenance than other ornamental trees. "They need to be pruned and sprayed regularly to control pests that can ruin fruit," he says.
Winter is the best time to start a regular care cycle to keep your trees healthy and looking beautiful. The trees' dormant period is the best time to prune in order to develop a solid branch structure. "Start when the tree is young to create a good branch scaffold and keep branches at the right height so the fruit is easy to pick," Marchello says.
Young trees may only need a few limbs trimmed to shape their branch structure. Older trees, especially those that haven't been pruned for a long time, will need several years of gradual reshaping to restore their structure. "Don't prune more than a third of the branches in any one year," says Marchello, noting that it can take three or more years to restore a tree properly.
Taking too much off a tree at one time often results in the rampant development of fast-growing branches, called suckers. If they aren't removed judiciously, the tree puts energy into growing them and not fruit-bearing branches.
Novice growers should also be aware that most fruit trees are susceptible to some kind of disease or insect problems. "A good treatment program begins with the application of dormant oil," says Erik Hodson, general manager of A-rated Whitworth Pest Solutions in Puyallup, Wash. "Winter is the time to apply dormant oils to control certain insects, diseases and fungi."
Dormant spray is a highly refined oil mixed with water that when sprayed, suffocates wintering insect eggs and fungus spores. "The spray needs to be applied to the runoff point on the branches and the trunk," Hodson says. "It needs to get into all the cracks and crevices of the bark." The spray must be applied while the trees are dormant.
When hiring services to maintain your home orchard, both Hodson and Marchello say look for people who have experience with fruit trees and certification by the International Society of Arboriculture. "Fruit tree pruning is much more aggressive than what's done on other trees," Marchello says. Also, expect to pay more. Fruit trees need to be pruned with hand clippers and small hand saws so the arborist can make cuts that preserve the fruit-bearing spurs and branches - time-consuming work that other trees don't require.
Pat Munts grew up in western Washington but has spent the last 30 years gardening on the dry east side of the state near Spokane. She freelances for the Spokesman-Review and has served as eastern Washington editor for Master Gardener Magazine. She's the small farms coordinator for both WSU Spokane County Extension and the Spokane County Conservation District.