Gardening Tips: Pruning Time

What to do this week

With the prolonged cold weather, there was some serious pouting going on in my house. I wasn’t sure there even should be a column this week and maybe I’m still not certain. But if, like me, you are greatly cheered by a few days of above-zero weather, then it’s time to get out your rubber boots and slog through the slush to get started on your orchard pruning. Be sure to wait until at least mid-morning to make sure the temperature really does go above zero before cutting, and stop if you hear of a cold snap coming. That risk is less likely as we move into the last half of March.

Black knot on black cherry tree. (Photo by Paul Henjum, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Black knot on black cherry tree. (Photo by Paul Henjum, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The first step in pruning is to take off any dead wood first. You should be able to tell just by looking at it –  healthy wood has firm and fresh-looking bark and there are buds present. If you aren’t sure, cut into the tip and see if the inside is green and moist. If it is brittle and grey, keep cutting until you get to new-looking wood and then cut back some more until you get to an outward-facing bud.

Second, you should take off any damaged or broken branches. Be sure to cut or prune cleanly, leaving no stubs to catch water and foster disease. Broken branches should also be cut back to a branch that is growing out rather than towards the middle of the tree or bush. If it is a larger branch, you may want to do it in three or more steps to make sure that the bark doesn’t tear as the branch comes down. If, despite your best efforts, the bark does tear or leave a ragged edge, use a sharp knife to shape the cut smoothly.

The third thing you should prune out are diseased branches. If you have a plum or cherry tree for example, they are susceptible to black knot, which first manifests as a greenish swelling along the branch. Plums and cherries along with apples and peaches are also susceptible to anthracnose and canker. Dip your pruners in a 1:40 solution of disinfectant like Lysol to prevent spreading these diseases further and be sure to cut at least 10 cm or 4 inches below the affected area. Do not compost these trimmings. Burn or deeply bury them instead. It is also a good idea to dress the larger cuts on the tree with latex paint or special tree-wound dressing.

Fourth, cut out crossed or rubbing branches. This will encourage a healthier growth habit for the tree or shrub, especially if you also remove weak and spindly branches. This is when you want to shape the tree. In our climate, the best shape is one with a central leader, with tiers of downward growing branches at intervals along the trunk. This can be achieved by pruning back some of last year’s growth on each branch to a downward and outward facing bud, which will then become this year’s new branch. It is best to be cautious at first – you should not remove more than a third of any healthy branch you want to keep and no more than a third of the branches should be removed in any one year.

Drastic restorative pruning can sometimes be done, but wait until you grow in confidence and experience before you undertake this. You can encourage the development of a central leader by pruning out other competing upright branches and cutting back the desired leader to a good, strong bud. In windy Skye Glen, I make sure that good, strong bud is facing the prevailing west wind to counteract the tendency of the tree to bend eastwards in response to that wind. A few trees are naturally reluctant to adopt a leader dominated shape – Bramley’s Seedling comes to mind – and stubbornly maintain their tendency to an open vase shape. Do the best you can with what the tree wants.

It is good to keep in mind that the middle of the tree should not be over-crowded. A nice airy center with good air circulation will help prevent diseases like leaf spot and other fungal problems. In older trees, there are often a lot of spindly, vertical branches called watersprouts which should be clipped off early so they don’t become problems, competing with the leader.

With established fruit trees, try not to prune too aggressively, unless you are trying to curb excessive growth. If you are trying to control such growth, you should consider doing some summer pruning and make sure you are not overdoing the nitrogen fertilizer. Spring pruning, done when the plants are dormant, actually stimulates growth so summer pruning may be called for if you want to curb it instead. You also don’t want to prune off the fruiting buds!

Most of this advice also pertains to shrubs as well, but the snow cover is still a bit much to get any serious pruning done on your currants and raspberries. Hopefully by next week tips on caring for your small fruits will be more pertinent. Until then, confine your efforts to tree fruits. There will be plenty of work to keep you busy.

Featured image: Glen Innes Soldiers’ Settlement Estate, New South Wales, Australia, 1921, receiving instructions in pruning. Photographic Collection from Australia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.







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