Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Pruning Prune Plums

When first seeing the neglected state of various fruit trees in this forty-year-old garden, I was sure I could gradually restore them to robust production.  Two years later:  4 thriving, 5 languishing, 5 dead.

Wood pigeon resting on the Golden Delicious apple tree

The largest casualty was a thirty-foot cherry tree.   It was chopped down by a trio of rough-and-ready workers who entered our quartier last spring to work bomb it.  It was a case of my will against theirs:  Chop down the cherry tree, nothing else, yes, just the cherry tree.  That's right,  see the cherry tree over there, the big, dead tree, chop it down, no, don't prune the pear tree, it's the wrong season, chop down the cherry tree.  No, I don't want the shed painted, chop down the cherry tree.

On their bill, under the reason why the work was done was this quaint phrase: a la fin de vie (at the end of its life).  I felt comforted the fact it had a life was recognised. 

Pile of cherry tree limbs obscuring the thick, forked trunk

Pruning fruit trees and bushes assures a good harvest.  Chez nous, there are figs, apples, pears, peaches, plums, gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries, red/black currants, and grape vines.

Avocado filled with grape jelly (last jar!) made from previous season's grape harvest

Prunier d'ente is a plum tree bearing egg-shaped, deep-purple plums.   The one in our front garden, other than for an annual bout with mites which I successfully hose off each spring, is flourishing.  Its ample harvest provides enough jam lasting most of the year, along with plum leather which disappears within a few weeks because it so delicious we just can't stop until it is all gone.  However, this variety of plum is grown mainly for making prunes, that is, pruneaux (dried plums), as prune means fresh plum in French.  Perhaps this season, I will try my hand at drying some.

Prunier d'ente and lavender in front garden

An essential element of pruning is apical dominance.  I use the analogy of an leader training her replacement.  The bud forming the branch tip is the strongest.  However, it is necessary at times to reduce a branch's length, so if an apical bud is cut off, make sure that the cut reaches just above an lateral bud that is going in the right direction, usually outfacing.  This lateral bud will then develop into a branch with an apical bud, keeping the general growth robust, in other words, in the hands of good leadership.

Apical dominance guides an crucial aspect of pruning, dropped crotches.  I love that phrase and will go around the week or so I do all the pruning saying dropped crotches to anyone who will listen.  A tree's height and width is lessened using this technique.  While envisioning giant wish bones, I remove the longer of the two branches down to the wish bone's angled joint, leaving the branch collar (slightly swollen area where a branch joins another) intact as it contains wound-healing chemicals.  Note that the shorter branch remaining retains its apical bud. 

Besides reduction of width and height, the inner space of the tree needs to be opened to sunshine, and any limb rubbing against another is removed along with dead/diseased/injured wood.  Most pruning jobs are done in late winter/early spring when the sap has not yet risen and the bareness allows for thorough inspection of the tree's structure. However, dead wood can be removed any time.  Since spring-flowering bushes bloom on the previous season's growth,  they usually need to be pruned following flowering so as not to eliminate this season's flowers.

Besides grasping that pruning is not shearing, using the proper tools safely is also important.
Retractable straight saw, curved saw, secateurs, lopers, leather gloves

There are extensible versions of the basic pruning tools, so climbing onto a ladder or up a tree usually is not necessary.  The goal for small home orchards is to keep the tree at the right height allowing adequate pruning and harvesting with ease.  Nowadays, there also is a great selection of dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees.  If interested in more information regarding setting up and caring for home orchards check out Dave Wilson Nursery's YouTube channel.

I am off to prune the pear tree, because those work bombers promised to come back this spring to tame its unruly top with a chain saw.  They obviously know nothing about dropped crotches.


  1. Reading your post, I'm reminded of badly damaging trees and bushes in my garden while pruning improperly. Didn't realize there were many factors to consider. Great tips, Michelle, and nice to learn some French words in the process, not to mention "dropped crotches." Funny.


    1. Glad you found the post informative, Lahn. Pruning is both art and science, so it does take time to develop the skill. I have killed some rose bushes early on in my learning curve.