In the Garden November 2017

By Peg Keenleyside

I don’t consider myself in any way a tree expert, but over years of gardening, you pick up a few tips and start to develop your tree care know-how. Which, of course, I’m always happy to share with my husband since he’s the one who gets tasked on the annual ritual.

For fruit pruning trees, a couple of the basics: The fall and winter is the time to prune. Don’t put it off – a hot, early spring will get fruit trees flowering and then you’ll not want to prune. Or, in an attempt to get a shaggy tree into shape in the spring, you prune off all the would-be fruit. We did that this past spring and, much to our chagrin, lost most of the fruit on our peach tree.

Second, always make sure your pruning tools are super clean. Some people clean their tools between each tree they prune, just to make sure they don’t transfer any viruses or bacteria between plants. For this, you can use alcohol or water with a bit of bleach in it.

Take a look at your trees for pests and diseases in the fall, too. Find an online guide for pest and disease identification with good pictures; or take pictures of your trees to a nursery that sells fruit trees.

How much to prune and how to effectively prune fruit trees and shrubs are questions that come up all the time. My experience is that there’s some basic rules of thumb to follow:

First, always look at the overall shape of the tree or shrub. Fruit trees need a vase-like shape with a good open center (a shallow U-shape) so that sunlight can reach the lower branches – that’s what encourages bud growth which is followed by fruiting. When you’re out there with your limb saw and secateurs, look to prune to a shape that has 4-5 main limbs with sturdy branches coming off them.

There’s a good practical video about shaping a young fruit tree to be found on YouTube. It points out that you should be looking to cut back about one-third of a fruit tree’s summer growth when you prune, trimming back Y-junctions and excessive shoots from the main branches. Find it here:

Do you prune every year, and do you compost the leaves and branches pruned from fruit trees? The first answer is not always, but I like to have a good look at my fruit trees every year even if I’m just looking at their overall health (and I will do some shaping).

On the second question, because fruiting trees, especially older varieties, are susceptible to a variety of pests and diseases, like apple coddling moth and plum rust, organic gardeners will steer away from composting fruit-tree trimmings. You just don’t want to risk a disease or bug overwintering in your compost and then, come spring, moving into other areas
of the garden.

When it comes to hydrangeas, lilacs, rhododendrons and other shrubs I like to consider their shape and look closely at how they are setting up buds that will be blooms next year. I will look to make the plant into a nice globe or vase shape. I angle my pruning cuts on a branch just above next year’s bud growth. Should you be looking for a good online guide for shrub pruning, try this one by the Royal Horticultural Society:

If your shrubs have gotten out of control (and I see a lot of out of control evergreen shrubs in particular) it could be time to either get in a professional arborist service or, if you want to DIY an overgrown garden, check out the pruning series on YouTube by a Seattle based organization, PlantAmnesty. The link is:

And if you do have to tackle a major landscape clean up, please remember to take it all to the transfer station or rent a shredder and then compost it all on your property.

My last rule of green thumb to share this month? Hubby harmony is best maintained by not asking him to do all your fall tree and shrub pruning in one day.

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