Garden Variety: February perfect time for fruit tree pruning in Midwest

February is the best time to prune fruit trees in the Midwest. The lack of leaves on trees allows the person pruning a clear view into the tree, trees are dormant so they suffer less stress from the act than they would during the growing season, and the arrival of spring soon after allows trees to quickly heal their wounds. Fruit tree pruning practices are a little different from the methods used for ornamental trees. Here are a few tips to start.

Gather a pruning saw, loppers, hand pruners and gloves to perform the work.

When removing branches, always cut back to another branch. For example, if the branch makes a T, remove the whole base so that only a line is left rather than a shorter T. Typically, there is a visible ring or collar at the base of the branch. The best place to cut is right outside of that collar. Flush cuts remove more tissue and take longer to heal. Cuts that leave stubs are less damaging than flush cuts, but the stubs die back to the branch collar anyway so it only extends the process.

For good structure, the goal is to create a tree with strong horizontal branching. Think of the main branches as looking like rungs on a ladder. The other goal of pruning is to let light into the tree. Light is necessary to create fruit, so thinning a bushy tree may make it more fruitful.

Remove any dead, broken, damaged, or diseased branches first. They are entry points and sources for more disease-causing organisms into the tree.

Next, remove suckers and other branches that are growing vertically. Suckers may appear at the base of the tree or within upper branches, especially after a branch has cracked or a tree has been severely pruned. They rarely produce fruit.

If branches rub together within a tree or two or more branches are growing very close together, remove the weakest of the set.

Then, remembering to leave horizontal branches, remove additional branches as necessary to allow light into the tree and improve the overall structure. Heading cuts may also be used here.

Instead of cutting back to the next branch, cut back to a bud. This is where loppers and pruners are especially handy. Cuts should be made at 45-degree angles just above the bud, with the longest part of the angle being on the bud side.

On smaller trees and trees with few branches, use heading cuts to promote branching and reduce height (or length) of branches. In some cases, only a few inches might be removed from the tip of a branch. On larger, more mature trees, these types of cuts may mean removal of longer branches.

Recommendations on how much wood to remove vary. Some guides say to stick to the one-third rule for most trees. One way to manage this is to pile the wood that is being removed nearby, and step back periodically to compare the size of the pile with the size of the tree. Pear and plum trees are an exception. They respond poorly to heavy pruning and should be pruned at a minimum.

Other references suggest that apple, peach, and other common fruit trees can be pruned heavier than the one-third rule, especially if trees put on a lot of growth in the previous year or are especially overgrown. Do what feels comfortable, but know that gardeners tend to remove too little versus removing too much when it comes to pruning.

Avoid using pruning paint or wound treatment. Research shows that these products have an adverse effect on wound healing rather than providing any benefit.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.