Pruning with The Orchard Project

You might remember our previous shout out for The Orchard Project. After joining one of their harvesting trips at the beginning of autumn, it seemed only fitting to return in winter to learn a little bit about the care involved in maintaining a healthy orchard. This time, we attended a workshop to learn the some of the basics of restorative pruning.

Here’s what we learned:

  • The traditional method of cultivating apple trees (encouraging major branches to ‘fan out’ in all directions from the centre of the tree), can cause problems in later life if not maintained.
  • Apple trees hollow out with age, so if the weight of branches is not kept in check, or if the growth becomes unbalanced, the trunk is liable to split.
  • Restorative pruning is all about extending the life of the tree, by:
    • Reducing weight
    • Restoring balance
    • Increasing light and air flow to the centre of the tree (to promote new growth)

Restorative pruning basics:

  • Assess the tree. Are there more branches on one side of the tree compared to another? Does it look balanced? Can we remove some weight? Does the tree sway to touch?
  • When removing weight from the tree, here are a few key things to look out for:
    • Large branches growing directly upwards
    • Large branches growing inwards, towards the trunk
    • Branches that are growing directly on top of (parallel to) one another
  • The work may need to be staggered over a number of years. We’re only looking to remove up to 20% of the canopy in a single pruning session, any more and the tree will struggle to replenish itself.
  • When selecting which branches to remove, it’s advisable to choose younger branches as these will be the heaviest. Dead wood doesn’t count towards the 20% total, so it can either be removed completely or left in place to promote biodiversity.
  • Saw heavier branches in a series of cuts, to prevent the weight of the branch from ripping the bark and leaving the tree susceptible to disease. With restorative pruning, the final cut should always be cut flush to the ‘branch collar’ (the raised, cuff-like section at the junction of branch and trunk).
  • The branch collar is where the majority of growth hormones are; cutting as close as possible to this area of the tree, on your final cut, leaves the tree in a better position to heal itself (and, if active, begin new growth, called ‘watershoots’).
  • Never leave a stub at the end of a cut or it will just rot away and become a target for disease (a process called ‘die back’).
  • You can cut branches with a ladder and a hand saw, but a pole saw is much easier. Always saw from the top of the branch to avoid pinching (or you might end up stuck in there!)
  • If the tree has any diseased areas, postpone cutting these until healthy branches are removed, to avoid contamination. Disinfect your saw after use.

Sometimes you’ll encounter a tree that has lost one of its major branches, leaving a heavily unbalanced structure. If this is the case, and the tree is still active, you can tame new growth in the desired direction to gradually restore balance: there’s a picture of this in the gallery below.

We were guided through the day by the wise and wondrous ‘Orchard Bob’. Here are some resources from the Orchard Project website:

Here are some pictures of the day:

And lastly, if you have an orchard you’d like to restore, you can check to see if you’re eligible for a government supplement for the restorative pruning of fruit trees.

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