Growing backyard fruit can be a rewarding gardening experience. Plums, figs, muscadines, pears and blueberries are common mainstays in Southern gardens.
Pruning is an important task this time of year. When people prune their beloved fruit trees, they can be overly cautious and not prune enough branches back. Proper pruning can be scary because you are making drastic changes to the trees.
There are several reasons to prune fruit trees. One simple reason is to be able to reach the fruit. Fruit on a tall tree, or unwieldy vine, will likely only benefit the birds and squirrels. Plants that are properly pruned also will produce high-quality fruit sooner and have longer lifespans.
Pruning and training — directing tree growth to a desired shape or form — will develop a strong tree framework to support fruit production. Pruning also opens up the tree canopy to maximize light penetration, which is necessary for good fruit set and development.
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The timing of dormant pruning is critical. Pruning should begin as late in the winter as possible to avoid winter injury. Because muscadines “bleed” heavily, they are often pruned earliest — from January through early February. Apple trees should be pruned next, followed by peach and plum trees. Within a particular group of trees, prune the oldest trees first. Because younger trees are more prone to winter injury, you want to prune them later than the older trees.
Apples and pears are trained to a “central leader” system. This means that a main stem or trunk, referred to as the “leader,” remains in the center of the tree. During the first year, four or five branches are selected to form the main structure of the tree. These branches should be uniformly spaced around the trunk and not directly across from or above one another.
The shape of a properly trained central-leader tree is reminiscent of a Christmas tree. The lowest scaffold of branches will be the longest, with progressively shorter branches higher on the tree.
Peaches and plums are pruned to form “open centers.” Remove all of the branches/limbs growing downward or toward the center of the tree, as well as the central leader, leaving a vase shaped tree. The open center tree has three to five major limbs, called scaffolds, coming out from the trunk. This system allows for adequate light penetration into the tree, which minimizes shading problems.
Muscadines are produced on new shoots from last year’s growth. When pruning, leave about three inches of growth on those shoots that were produced last year. One-year-old wood is lighter colored with numerous buds, as opposed to the older, darker wood. The tender new shoots that sprout from these buds will produce fruit during the coming growing season.
If all of last year’s wood is removed, some new shoots still will emerge from the older growth. They just won’t bear any fruit. A well trained vine will have a single trunk that divides into two to four major fruiting arms, or “cordons,” that get trained along trellis wires.
Blueberries and blackberries are a little different. For these plants, slender, flexible branches, called “canes,” must be managed. Thus, when pruning these plants, you want to prune for cane renewal. This means cutting about a third of the older canes back rather severely but leaving the others. The next year, another third of the canes will be pruned. This process enables you to continue getting fruit while pruning back the entire bush over a three-year period.
Illustrations will help give a better understanding of the pruning process. Visit this University of Georgia Extension website for specific information about a number of fruits and vegetables grown in Georgia: extension.uga.edu/publications/series.cfm?name=home-garden
▪ Sprouts Gardening Program at Lanford Library: Bibb County Master Gardeners will teach literature-based gardening lessons for kids ages 6-8 from 4-5 p.m. Thursdays, Feb. 2-March 9. Free. Call 478-621-6970 for more information.
▪ Georgia Native Plant Society Annual Symposium: Feb. 4 at Middle Georgia State University in Macon. For more information, visit gnps.org/education/symposium or pick up a brochure at the Bibb County Extension office
Contact county Extension agent Karol Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.