Diarmuid Gavin: Making the cut - how to prune your fruit trees
How to prune your fruit trees to ensure a bountiful harvest next year
When we moved into our house in Wicklow, I couldn't decide on an overall plan for the garden. I wanted to live with the space to see what guidance it would give me. But some garden developments had to be tackled straight away and I knew fruit trees were a must.
So, off we went to the Murphy and Wood garden centre in Cabinteely, on the outskirts of Dublin City, and purchased whatever would fit in the family car. And on the journey home I plotted our mini orchard.
I gathered a few of the children from the area, told them of our plans and got each to pick a tree which they then helped plant. It's been rewarding for them and for me, charting the growth and volumes of apples, cherries and pears produced. And this year we've had a good crop.
Our choices that first garden centre day were for pretty standard garden varieties. For an apple it was 'James Grieve', an old variety which gets its name from its breeder, who raised it in Edinburgh some time before 1893.
It's a savoury, juicy apple with strong acidity which then mellows as the fruit matures during September. It makes a sweet and delicate stewed apple (which has been responsible for many an apple tart in our house) and can also be used as a dessert apple. It bruises easily so isn't often available in supermarkets.
'Stella' is an excellent self-fertile cherry variety, easy to grow and productive. It was the first of the modern cherries, introduced from Canada in the 1970s. The large dark red cherries are very juicy and sweet, with a typical cherry flavour. If your only experience of cherries is from a supermarket you'll be in for a nice surprise, as the flavour of fresh Stella cherries straight from your own tree is wonderful. Be careful, however, because the birds like them too so you may have to cover your trees with netting.
Our pear tree was the best known of all pears - 'Conference'. The long, bell-shaped fruits with firm flesh can be eaten hard or fully ripe, giving a smooth juicy flavour. They're wonderful when cooked, too.
Trees crop late in the season, from October to November, and the fruit will store until January. Enjoy Conference pears at their best by picking them slightly under-ripe, storing them in a cool place then bringing indoors to ripen slowly.
Now that we are in the dormant period (from November to bud-burst in early March), it's pruning time for apples and pears - unless they are trained as espaliers, fans or cordons which are pruned in summer. Don't prune the stone fruits such as plums, almonds or cherries as these are susceptible to silver leaf disease if pruned in winter.
So, why do we prune fruit trees? The reasons are two-fold: to develop and maintain a strong framework, and to encourage blossoming and fruiting.
A strong framework of branches is required to support fruit, which at cropping time can be very heavy and will snap weaker branches in two. Ideally, you want an open canopy that you can see through, allowing good air circulation which is important for disease prevention. As well as this, you need sunlight to be able to penetrate to all of the tree to allow for fruit ripening.
So, armed with a clean pair of secateurs and a loppers or small saw, get out to the garden and take a good look at the tree before you dive in. Examine the overall shape. If it's getting too big for the space, you might need to cut back some of the top growth; a telescopic loppers can reach higher branches. Remove any suckers and any water shoots - straight little stems that pop up vertically on branches - as these are non-productive.
You will often find branches crossing each other or rubbing against each other - these should be removed as they can lead to disease. Anything that has died or looks rotten should also be completely removed. And judiciously remove branches where necessary to open up the shape of the tree and allow light and air in.
If your tree is a spur-bearing variety, ie bears fruit on small stubby side shoots, as most of the apples and pears we grow are, then cut back the previous year's growth on all the main branches by about a third to an outward-facing bud. And shorten any side shoots (laterals) to just above five buds.
Tip-bearing varieties form fruit at the tip of the laterals so require a lighter touch - leave any laterals that are around a foot in length alone. More vigorous side shoots can be lightly pruned back to just above a bud to encourage more tips to form.
Remember, too, much pruning in one season can stress a tree so if you think a lot of work is required, for example where you are renovating an overgrown tree, plan to undertake the work over a few years.
To ensure that fruit trees remain healthy and, weather-permitting, next year produce good crops, an annual pruning will help.
photo: fran veale