This time of year is the best for pruning fruit trees such as apples and pears as, with the leaves off, you can see the form of the branches and what needs to be done to keep them shapely. Remember plums, cherries and other members of the Prunus family should not be pruned during the cold winter months to avoid introducing diseases like silver leaf, and are best done in autumn, immediately after harvesting the fruit.
Winter pruning has changed considerably over the years. No longer is it considered a good thing to cut back new growth every year, which leads to more growth and consequently more pruning as the trees mature. The best way to keep apples and pears healthy is just to aim for an open head of well-spaced branches and thinner growth. Take your time over this and look at your trees carefully before you start any work. Once you are satisfied with what needs to be done, you can get on with the job.
Make sure your pruning tools – secateurs, loppers, saws, etc. – are in tip-top condition. If they are becoming past their sell-by dates – rusty, blunt or damaged – get them serviced, or invest in a new set. Ragged cuts may cause infections to take hold. An ideal kit should comprise a sharp pair of secateurs, loppers with extending handles (ratchet loppers will take the pressure out of cutting thicker shoots), a pruning saw and/or a keyhole saw with a pointed blade to get between tightly packed branches, and a bow saw for removing thicker wood.
To start with, remove any rotten fruit still hanging on the trees, which will carry disease over from this year’s crop to next. Then, take out any branches completely that are dead or obviously not producing healthy shoots. Cut these back to a healthy limb; don’t leave short stumps which will die back and cause problems in future years. Then prune out any weak, straggly growths and any that are growing straight up, which will spoil cropping and also the shape of the tree.
You are aiming for an open, well-shaped head of evenly spaced branches, so cut out any growing too close to the next one, and any that are crossing each other, or likely to as the tree develops. Finally, thin out overcrowded shoots so that air can circulate freely through the head.
Gardeners tend to disagree about whether to paint wounds left by branch removal with a sealing paint or not. It is generally considered unnecessary with most trees, including apples and pears, and can even delay the cut callousing over naturally. However, if you have to remove wood from trees of the prunus family (including plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines and apricots), it is wise to treat the cuts with an anti-fungal wound paint, whatever time of year the work is done, but particular if it has been necessary between October and April.
Newly planted fruit trees require very little winter pruning. They will usually have been cut back when bought; this will encourage young, strong growths which can be sorted out in summer to give a well-shaped head from the outset.
Always clear up all prunings so keep your trees healthy. Ideally they should be burned; if this is not possible, dispose of them at your local recycling centre. Apple and pear wood smells lovely if burned on a domestic fire, and is always in demand by your neighbours with log burners.