Summer pruning

By the end of July, the plum and damson trees at our community garden are laden with fruit – ready for making jam, chutney or picking for a snack on a hot day. Therefore, we thought it would be good to welcome back Patrick McCabe, to host a follow up session from the pruning workshop in February – luckily, this time, we could offer him much better weather!

We began the morning sitting around a bench under a parasol, as Patrick took us through the basics. Why, when and how we prune.

Why do we prune? We prune fruit trees for a number of reasons – primarily to keep the tree healthy, promote leafy growth and prevent it from getting diseases. Additionally, as gardeners we use pruning as a technique for shaping trees, preventing them from growing too large, interfering with other plants or blocking paths.

When do we prune? The answer to this depends on the tree. In our February session the focus was on our apple and pear trees, and in this summer session we worked on trees with stone fruit – which for Bandstand Beds means plums, damsons, cherries and peaches. The reason for this is simple. In the winter, a fungal disease called silver leaf that affects stone fruit trees is particularly prevalent. If we pruned these trees in the winter, we’d be opening them up to disease – which is exactly what we’re trying to prevent!

Learning from the trees

How do we prune? To answer this question, Patrick got us up out of our seats so that we could learn ‘on the job.’ He told us the basics, the 4 Ds, that describe the four different types of branches we should look to remove when we’re pruning. These are branches that are…

● Dead – Dead branches can leave areas of the tree open to disease. They’re also more likely to fall and cause damage to fruit on the tree, or to plants around it.

● Diseased – Any diseased branches must be taken off. This can help prevent diseases from spreading.

● Damaged – If a branch has been broken, it’s good practice to prune it back to where it’s healthy. Similarly, to dead branches, they can not only offer a place to let disease in but can also fall and damage fruit.

● Deranged – The most common branches we were pruning were those that were ‘deranged.’ This means they’re crossing over, or there are two many branches in a small space. When they cross, there’s a chance they will rub and create wounds where disease can get in. If there are too many in a small space, it means there is bad air flow – which allows disease to flourish.

Patrick using the apple tree pruned in February as an example

Next up, was the practicalities. We had two main tools, a pair of sharp secateurs and a pruning saw. But as these fruit trees are young we mainly used our secateurs. We had to get to grips with the tools, and Patrick gave us a demonstration. Then with off cut branches we took it in turns to get it right – making sure we were getting a clean cut, at an angle, just above a node. This is to reduce the chances of rotting, disease or the bud we’re cutting to dying. It was also at this point we were reminded we must clean our tools between each tree – with a solution of diluted bleach and water. This makes sure we aren’t spreading disease – which, like I’ve mentioned, is exactly what we’re trying to prevent!

A guide to making a good cut

At this point Patrick guided us through a couple of trees, before letting us loose on the garden. In pairs, we examined each stone-fruit tree and cut off the branches that fit one of the 4 D’s. However, at this point we started to face the problem – what if we find a ‘deranged’ branch that’s falling down with fruit? Patrick assured us that the pruning for these branches could wait a couple of weeks – as long as it was done before the winter! So we tied a piece of string around the branches as a reminder to ourselves.

For all of us it was a way to use the theory what we’d just learnt practically – making it easier to remember! It was also an opportunity to question our methods and to get clarity from Patrick. For example, one of us asked about the use of sealants on trees – if that was something we should be doing as we prune. Patrick explained that although used to be common practice, now it’s discouraged as it impacts the natural healing of the tree. However, he did let us know that if we were particularly worried about a wound, we could apply honey as an antiseptic.

Using the pruning saw

As we looked over one of the larger plum trees we wondered if all its upright branches were a problem. Earlier in the morning, Patrick had informed us that fruit only grows on branches that run horizontally, or towards the ground. Those that grow straight up can be not only a hazard in the wind but will also not bear fruit. Over time, those branches will fan out, but Patrick showed us how we could speed this process up by festooning.

Festooning is the method of tying or weighing down the branches on a tree so that they’ll focus on growing fruit and not leaves. It also ensures the fruit that’s grown is easy to reach and the tree has a better shape. To do this at Bandstand Beds, Patrick showed us that the best ties to use are old bike inner tubes. This is not only because they’re free, and reused, but also because unlike string they won’t cut into the tree’s bark. We used the long handle of the fruit picker to pull the vertical branches down to a good height. With one of us holding it in place, and the other with the inner tube in hand, we tied it in place. When we were done, and reflected on our work over our lunch, the tree looked a little peculiar. But we were confident as we knew that in a couple of years when the branches are set in their place, we’ll be rewarded with lots more delicious fruit!

Using the fruit picker for high branches

Following on from the workshop, with all our fruit harvested and Clapham Common looking dry and yellow in August, we suddenly remembered pieces of string we’d tied on the fruit during the workshop. So, we disinfected our secateurs and ventured out into the hot summer sunshine and made sure all those leftover ‘deranged’ branches were removed – without needing to sacrifice any of our fruit!

Written by Daisy Everingham.

For more information about taking part at Bandstand Beds click on this link to our website, email or stop by our produce table on Saturdays between 10am and midday to chat to one of our members.