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You Can Grow It: Tree pruning tips from an expert

We get tips from arborist Matt Perkins on how to prune your ornamental and fruit trees.

BOISE, Idaho —

Spring is finally here and we’re starting to see a few flowers popping up. It won’t be long now before the trees start to explode with colorful blossoms and green leaves. It also means it’s time to do some pruning.

On this edition of You Can Grow It, we get some advice from an expert on the proper and safe way to prune your trees, to make sure they look good and stay healthy throughout the growing season.

Trees and shrubs are just starting to come out of winter dormancy. And it won’t be long before they’re covered with blossoms and leaves and start setting fruit. Pruning helps them look good, stay healthy, and produce good, quality fruit, and this is a good time to do it. So today, we’re getting some great pruning tips from Boise City arborist Matt Perkins.

But before we start, let’s make sure that we have the proper tools and safety equipment for the job. It helps to have a variety of saws and pruners, with extendable handles to reach the higher branches, plus safety gear like gloves, protective glasses, and even a hardhat. Now we can start pruning.

“A lot of people have this tendency just to make a blind heading cut," Perkins said. "Here I’ve removed the branch and made the clearance, but now the cut that you’ve made on that tree is not a desirable type of cut.”

“There’s no chance for the tree to continue to produce new sprouts from that type of cut.”

“The more desirable cut is to make would be to follow that back to another branch and make your cut just below that branch… like that.”

But what about much larger branches?

“Removing a slightly larger branch calls for a different type of cut,” Perkins said.

To prevent damage to the tree, matt uses a three step cutting process.

“First, come out about 6 to 12 inches from where you want the finished cut to be. Make an undercut. Now the reason you make that undercut is because you want to prevent the tree from actually stripping off the bark of the tree when the branch falls off.”

Once you’ve made the undercut, move a few inches toward the end of the branch and make a cut on the top side.

Notice how the undercut prevented the branch from tearing the bark as it fell off. Now you can cut off the shorter branch stub, which comes off cleanly.

“Now we can look at fruit trees a little bit, because fruit tree pruning is quite a bit different from pruning ornamental and shade trees.”

On fruit trees, there are two types of buds to watch for when you’re pruning: vegetative buds, and fruiting buds.

The flat-looking buds that hug the stem are vegetative buds. They won’t produce fruit, just leaves and branches.

But this bud is plumper and extends away from the stem. That’s how you know this is a fruiting bud.

“That’s where you will get flowers and then fruit,” he said.

“So in pruning fruit trees, we want to leave as much of this growth as we can, and remove a lot of the vegetative growth.”

“The best time to prune your fruit trees is going to be right about now, just as the buds are starting to swell.”

“Each of these will be an apple? Yes.”

Fruit trees prefer an open canopy to allow plenty of sunshine and air circulation to better ripen the fruit. and keep in mind that it’s better to have fewer large, good quality fruit, than a lot of little fruit, so thin out the fruit buds to about one every two to five inches for the best fruit development.

Now is a good time to do some pruning before the trees come completely out of dormancy, because the buds are swelling and soon the leaves and blossoms will start to appear. 

Have you planted a new tree? Growers recommend that you let new fruit trees wait a season or two before doing much pruning. After that, fruit trees should be pruned every year. For shade and ornamental trees, prune only as needed to maintain their shape and remove damaged branches.

For more information on planting and pruning your trees, check out the city of Boise Parks and Recreation website and select the community forestry link

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