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In Iowa, fruit trees should be pruned between late February and early Apil. I normally take a day off of work around the last week of February to prune our fruit trees. I don't prune when precipitation is forecasted within 48 hours or when the 10-day weather forecast has any temperatures below 0 degrees F and I've always found a date in late February that meets those requirements....until this year. I watched the forecast all February and early March and there wasn't a single day that met those two requirements. Fortunately, the weather in the middle of March has been much better so I took a half day off work and started pruning and just finished the rest of our fruit trees last weekend.
I prune to increase sunlight and airflow throughout the tree which helps minimize potential disease issues. While pruning reduces the number of fruit a tree will grow, the remaining fruit will be a lot bigger, more than making up for the loss in the number of fruit. Pruning also stimulates new growth necessary to maximize fruit production. Living plants like to balance top and root growth so removing some branches stimulates the dormant buds to grow in an attempt to restore the top to root balance.
I try to follow the principles found in "Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy-Harvest Fruit Trees" although I'm not perfect at it. I have pruned our apple, peach, apricot, and plum trees to an open-vase or goblet shape.
Pruning starts at the time the tree is planted by cutting it off at 24-30 inches above the soil and cutting any shoots below that to 2-3 buds. The next 2-3 years I focus on getting 3-5 main branches evenly spaced around the trunk of the tree and shaping those branches to 45-60 degrees so they will be able to carry a heavy load of fruit. This may sound easy to do in theory, but first-time orchardists may find it emotionally challenging to remove unnecessary branches from a new tree, but the tree will be much better if it is done early instead of waiting a couple of years and the branches start to crowd each other.
Here is the 10 step the process I go through for each of our apple, peach, apricot, and plum trees once I've determined the main branches:
1. Sterilize hand pruners and hand saw. I typically fill a small cup with rubbing alcohol and let my hand pruners sit in it for about 10 seconds before making any cuts. I wipe my handsaw down with hand sanitizer and let it sit for 30 seconds before wiping it off.
2. Remove all dead wood.
3. Remove all diseased wood (sterilize pruners or saw again after removing these).
4. Remove all damaged wood. Damaged wood is frequently caused by branches that cross each other, or branches that rub against the support posts when the wind blows.
5. Remove all branches pointing to the center of the vase. These block the sunlight and will be hard to reach as the tree grows larger.
6. Remove all branches pointing straight up. These will not fruit and they shade the branches below them.
7. Remove all branches pointing straight down. These will be shaded by the branch above them.
8. Look for branches that are nearly parallel to each other or have a narrow branching angle. Remove one of the two branches leaving the one that most appropriately fills the remaining space.
9. Remove 1/3 to 1/2 of the new growth on each remaining branches by making a cut about 3/16" above an outward facing bud. Make the cut at about a 30-degree angle.
10. Remove all suckers growing from the rootstock. These are not the same variety as the main tree and should be removed whenever you see them.
While going through the 10 steps above, I keep in mind that I should not remove more than 30% of the wood (25% in more mature trees) in any one given year. Removing more than this in one year will send the tree into panic mode and it may try to regrow with suckers and water sprouts (rapid growing stems that grow straight up shading the tree and don't bear fruit) which can continue for a couple of years.
If all of this seems daunting, I'd say there is no one-way to prune a fruit tree. If I had 5 professionals look at a tree, I'm sure they'd give me 10 different answers on how it could be pruned correctly. The key is to do something and if it doesn't turn out as you want, next year you'll have another chance.
As with so many things, having the right equipment is half the battle. The first couple of years after planting our first trees I used a few different brands of hand pruners from the local big box store and didn't like how they felt in my hand and really didn't like the quality of cut on the tree. A couple of years ago I bought some Felco hand pruners and have been super happy with them (other than when my kids use them as scissors and don't put them away in the right place...but that has nothing to do with the quality of the tool!). I'm not a fan of using loppers for fruit tree pruning so I use a Corona pruning saw for everything bigger than what the hand pruners will handle.
One of the benefits of pruning trees is I end up with dozens of scions (the one-year-old growth that can be grafted to rootstock to make another tree) to use for grafting or to trade for other plants. I have connected with several people in a scion exchange group and have traded scions for several fig, elderberry, and aronia berry cuttings so we can expand our backyard plantings even more. I'll swap the rest of my scions with a local friend who will take them to a grafting class for dozens of other people to use in making their own trees. It is fun to think that by next year, scions from my backyard will be growing as baby trees all over central Iowa, plus Minnesota, Indiana, New York, and Kansas.
The snow is melting and it is raining instead of snowing. We're starting to think about spring projects like setting up the greenhouses, mulching the bare spots, and taking cuttings and pruning. We are starting to grow seeds under grow lights in our basement and it is fun to have a little glimpse of spring popping up under the lights. It takes a little planning to start seeds at the right time to have them ready to plant outdoors. Over the years we have learned a few tricks about successfully starting seeds. Let me share with you some tips to growing successful seedlings.
1. Get the timing right. Not all plants grow at the same rate. Peppers take longer to germinate than tomatoes. Marigolds and annual flowers come up really fast and grow fast, but most perennial plants are much slower. I like to plant my onion and pepper seeds first (they take a little time to grow) and then cold hardy crops like celery and cabbage and kale (those can go out in the garden almost as soon as the ground thaws). Tomatoes come next. I typically plant them the first or second week of March (and sometimes the third week of March if we are still waiting for seeds) to transplant them and put them in the greenhouse till May. If I didn't have a greenhouse, I would plant them the last week of March (6-8 weeks before you plant them outdoors). I'll start herbs like parsley, chives, thyme, and basil in the middle of March too. I'll wait until the second or third week of April before planting things like zucchini and squash, cucumbers, and other fast growing warm loving plants. They will get too big if you plant them more than a few weeks before you plant them outside. Plant seeds that grow at the same rate together to avoid problems.
2. Use grow lights. I have tried to start seeds using the light from my windows, but the light is not strong this time of year, and I found myself moving my little tray of seedlings around chasing every little scrap of sunlight but it wasn't enough light and the young plants became leggy and weak. A couple years ago, we made a PVC grow light stand that was inexpensive and effective. We just bought shop lights at the local hardware store and had much better results. We now have a whole shelf covered with grow lights, but the principle is the same. It is important to note that the lights need to be pretty close to the plants. All our plant lights are designed to raise and lower the lights to keep the grow lights just a few inches from the plants. Leave the lights on for at least 15 hours a day.
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What do we buy when there is nothing in the garden to eat? Here is a picture of everything we bought the first time we went shopping after we finished our 50 day pantry challenge that started January 1st. We still have canned tomatoes and applesauce and frozen peppers and things but were out of fresh greens and fruit by the end of the challenge.
Here are the top ten lessons we learned from our pantry challenge and the things we are trying to change as a result.
1. We don't have a great way to store fresh root crops. We stocked up on potatoes thinking that they would last awhile, but about half of them sprouted by the end of the challenge, even when stored with apples layered with paper and stored in a dark box in the coldest part of the house. Gold potatoes stored better than russet potatoes, but I'll probably use frozen potatoes next winter if we do this again. We only ate half of the carrots I had bought. It turns out that you can store them and they are still fine to eat, but once they start sprouting, they do not taste very good raw. Sweet potatoes stored well, but we didn't eat as many as we hoped we would.
2. I missed greens way more than I thought I would. I don't normally eat a lot of salad in January. It doesn't taste as fresh as what we grow in our garden, but a lot of our recipes are improved by a little bit of green. One goal for this year is to build cold frames and try to harvest greens year round in the garden.
3. Some of our produce lasted way longer than I thought it would. We still have pomegranates in the fridge from our challenge and they still look great. We were looking for something to help keep the produce in our refrigerator keep longer and I think we found something that is helping. We bought an air purifier and ionizer for the refrigerator. It has really made a difference considering how much produce we go through. We just charge it and put it in the fridge, and it keeps the food longer and keeps the fridge smelling fresh.