Learning how to prune is very scientific. My first experience with pruning is going out with my dad to the ancient orchard out back. He told me some basic rules, like make sure you cut on an angle above the bud and get rid of all the water sprouts, or branches that go straight up. In high school I went to a pruning demo a neighbor put on. I actually read the extension bullietin on pruning around that time too (and it’s long). It was one of the first skilled horticultural tasks I learned how to do.
In college the education continued in fruit production class, and with my internship at the Extension office. But one of the most unexpected places I learned to prune was Environmental Plant Pathology. We didn’t talk at all about pruning. But I learned how plants grow, and most of all how they utilize sunlight.
Here’s the interesting thing about plants. Most all of the sunlight is captured in the first layer of leaves. Those leaves underneath get a measly percentage of sunlight to try and do something with. That first layer is where all the photosynthesizing and productivity goes on. So when I prune, I try to imagine my tree having a single layer of leaves. I don’t want the leaves to be layer too much, but I also don’t want any holes. And I try and remember the sun moves and changes angles as well, so it’s not just from a top view that I want that layer of leaves.
The trees I’ve usually dealt with are old and ill-trained. Training systems makes the whole above goal a lot more attainable. Last year I finally went through my parents orchard (very old and ill-trained one, and becoming increasingly overgrown) and thinned out the trees, trying to get them a little more on track. I was worried this would just result in a mess of water sprouts this year, but I’m finding out that its not that bad. I went out for the first time while visiting last weekend and started tackling the trees. Since they are thinned out, there’s just less wood to prune. I wish I would have done it ages ago instead of pruning too many small branches for years.
The rules of pruning are scientific and based on plant growth. But when I prune I feel like I am an artist. I cut and shape the tree to just where I want it. I see some pruning jobs that are straightforward (just lop off everything growing straight up and you are done), but for me every cut is a decision. Will this help my overall goal for the tree? Will it help it produce fruit? In some ways the old trees are more fun this way. There’s usually lots going on, a lot to correct and not a very straightforward way to do it. So it turns into art for me.
It is fun this time of year to be able to enjoy warm winter weather and get out in the garden. Maybe that is why I love pruning so much: it’s the first garden task of the season when I can get out and do something with plants after a long boring break. It’s also the the first garden task I learned how to do right, and the first one I felt I was good at. It’s transformed for me from a chore to a science to an incredible art form.
*For more information on pruning go here.