Pruning in spring?

We’ve been getting lots of good pruning questions lately, so we thought we’d share some with you today.

Pruning plums that have started to flower - a good idea?
Pruning plums that have started to flower – a good idea?

1. Is it too late to prune now?
No, is the short answer.

Generally we prune most fruit trees (apples, pears, peaches, nectarines and plums) in winter while the trees are dormant, but as with all aspects of pruning – there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing to do, just cuts and consequences.

So, what are the likely consequences of pruning in late winter/early spring?

Pruning in winter encourages a strong growth response in the trees, and the later you prune the less the tree is likely to grow in response. If your trees have already broken dormancy when you prune them, you’ll be wasting some of the energy they will have already put into growth. But that may be better than leaving them completely un-pruned.

2. What’s the difference between a heading cut, and a thinning cut?
At the end of every branch or lateral (smaller side-branch) is an ‘apical’ or ‘terminal’ bud, and it releases a hormone that suppresses the growth of the buds below it. Any time you make a cut that removes the apical bud it’s called a ‘heading’ cut, and therefore the effect of a heading cut is to create branching. This is a very stimulating type of cut, as usually the 2 or 3 buds immediately below the cut will start to grow.

2 year old cherry tree responding to heading cuts

On the other hand, if you make a pruning cut back to a lateral, but leave the lateral intact – i.e. leave its apical bud in place, that’s called a ‘thinning’ cut.

This is a less stimulating type of cut, and is a good way to remove some wood from the tree without creating branching.

3. Should you remove all growth going into the middle of the tree?
Large branches that are going into the middle of the tree, especially high up in the tree, can create shading over the lower branches, and should usually be removed.

Very hairy fruit trees that need some central growth removed
Very hairy fruit trees that need some central growth removed

If there are a lot of large branches to remove, it’s a good idea to do it over a few years rather than all at once, because trees will try to replace all the wood you remove from them, and the aim is to keep the trees in balance between producing wood, and producing fruit, therefore aim to remove as little wood as needed each year, to create the shape you want.

However, small branches (or laterals) that are going into the middle of the tree usually do not need removing, and in fact can be very useful fruit-bearing wood.

In fact, removing all laterals that go into the middle of the tree is one of those “rules” that can end up doing quite a bit of damage to your tree, as it’s easy to create long bare patches on your limbs by removing these laterals, particularly low down in the tree where it’s easy to reach them. Those bare patches become wasted real estate, as you’ve effectively removed all the fruit growing wood – it’s one of the rookie mistakes we help you avoid in our Pruning Mature Fruit Trees short course.

Animals and fruit trees

Do you have animals around your fruit trees?

We’d never grazed animals in the orchard before (apart from the ones we don’t want, like kangaroos, rabbits and hares), until Tess Sellar joined us here at the farm and brought her lovely dairy cows.

Tess and Ant (who now runs the orchard on the farm) have been experimenting with grazing the cows in various orchards.

In winter when there are no leaves on the tree it’s wildly successful, with the cows making good use of the feed (saving Ant having to mow), leaving behind lots of fertiliser, and only causing minimal damage to the trees.

Cowpats in the orchard providing natural fertiliser
Cowpats in the orchard providing natural fertiliser

However in summer they quickly discovered that it’s a different story when the trees have leaves – turns out cows absolutely LOVE fruit tree leaves.

One of Tess' cows munching down on an apricot tree
One of Tess’ cows munching down on an apricot tree

If you can get the logistics right to get the benefits without the damage, fruit trees and grazing animals are a natural mix, and in fact have a long tradition of being farmed together.

But it’s a very uncommon practice in modern orchards, and so we’ve been glad to be part of the ANOO network (the Australian Network of Organic Orchardists) to learn from the experience of other small-scale organic orchardists – because that’s exactly the experience we can then bring to you to try out in your backyards/small farms.

Within the ANOO network there are growers using sheep, cows, pigs, chickens and geese in their orchard, and every year it’s a hot topic of conversation at the conference.

Here’s a couple of things we’ve learned so far.

Phil Marriot has been grazing Shropshire sheep in his organic orchard. Phil finds that using the Shroppies to control the weeds under his trees brings great benefits – keeping the grass short and thereby helping to put more carbon into the soil, providing free nutrition for the trees delivered exactly where it’s needed, helping to control pests and diseases, cleaning up waste fruit from the ground, and of course converting waste (grass, fruit) into useful products like meat and wool.

Sheep grazing in a cherry orchard
Shropshire sheep grazing in a cherry orchard
Photo: Phil Marriot

While generally happy with the benefits, Phil warns that large animals will routinely eat the bottom metre or so of the foliage from both his cherry and lemon trees (as you can in the photo above).

He’s also spent a few years building up a herd of quiet, well-behaved animals that get to go in the orchard – any naughty ones are immediately banished, before they can spread their bad habits to their buddies.

Matthew Tack from Our Mates Farm in Tassie runs Wiltshire Horn sheep under his apple trees, and returned from a trip away to find this damage (below).

Sheep damage to an apple tree trunk. Photo: Matthew Tac
Sheep damage to an apple tree trunk.
Photo: Matthew Tack

Matthew and his wife Coreen are big fans of using animals with fruit trees, but warn of the dangers of letting the animals run short on minerals. The sheep were left in an area that they thought would have been big enough to feed them for 2 weeks.

“It goes to show how important minerals are! These trees fortunately are well established and should recover. Most of this damage is from last year’s wethers.”

One of the other big issues with keeping animals with fruit trees is protecting them from predators – but more on that in another blog.

If you’re interested in having animals around your fruit trees, we wrote Fruit Tree Care for Animal Lovers just for you! It will guide you through the pros and cons of including various animals and helps you figure out which will suit you best.

Field Trips Are Fun

Field trips to other people’s properties are one of the most effective ways of learning about farming (apart from actually doing it for a few years, of course).

Ant at his first ANOO conference, with Hugh and Katie
Ant at his first ANOO conference, with Hugh and Katie

We’re just back from ANOO 2019, the fifth conference of the Australian Network of Organic Orchardists.

We went back to the roots by returning to Tassie, where ANOO was born back in 2015, the brainchild of Michelle McColl from Kalangadoo Organics. It’s a pretty casual group – no committee, no office bearers, no bank account, and is based on two principles: it’s for certified organic commercial growers, and it’s a collaborative, information-sharing space.

Organic orchardists having a round table discussion at Willie Smith's Apple Shed, in the Huon valley
Organic orchardists having a round table discussion at Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, in the Huon valley

Even though no-one’s a complete expert, ANOO is a gathering of farmers who are problem solving every day to grow the best fruit they possibly can.

We all face the same issues and problems, but everyone puts their own interpretation on them and solves them in their own unique way, like Simon, who uses a flame thrower in his orchard to get rid of last year’s leaves and the Black spot spores they carry, without only minimal damage to the understorey – a brilliant solution!

Simon demonstrating the flamethrower he uses to kill black spot spores in his orchard
Simon demonstrating the flamethrower he uses to kill black spot spores in his orchard

Sometimes the learning comes from noticing the differences between the farms we visit and our own. And because ANOO is set up on the principle of openness and information sharing, we get to see and hear about everyone’s mistakes, as well as their successes.

Simon's undulating orchard on the side of several hills had Ant jumping for joy
Simon’s undulating orchard on the side of several hills had Ant jumping for joy

In Tassie some of the challenges most growers face is too much vigour in the trees, and too much grass in the orchard. We wish! It’s such a contrast to our semi-arid growing conditions, and our relatively low soil carbon levels.

So it’s reassuring to benchmark ourselves against others and and assess our yields, fruit quality, and disease management against what other people are getting. Ant should feel rightly proud of the success he’s achieved with Tellurian Fruit Gardens with a minimal amount of water, and good soil and nutrition management.

Ant giving the pigs what they love at Our Mates' Farm in Geeveston
Ant giving the pigs what they love at Our Mates’ Farm in Geeveston

We saw lots of examples of animals in orchards, which gave Ant the chance to compare the different management techniques he needs to use to look after his animals in our drier and more fragile environment.

The greatest value of ANOO (or other similar networks, like Mel talked about in her blog about the Deep Winter Agrarians gathering) is having a peer group of like-minded people who “get” what you’re talking about.

There’s not many places in the world we can have in-depth conversations about Codling Moth or Black Spot without the eyes of the person you’re talking with quickly glazing over!

Where are my bloody multigrips?
Where are my bloody multigrips?

Without fail, we learn something new to bring back for the farm, and for our Grow Great Fruit members, and this year was no exception – we’re buzzing with new ideas to share.