How to prune your fruit trees this winter

The short days and long nights leave many of us in Southwest Colorado yearning for something: more powder and more turns, a long-lasting snowpack to fill our rivers this spring and summer or the chance to dip our toes in a warm ocean’s salt water.

OK, there is the off chance that those are my current wishes. And I have one more: fresh fruit – like fresh-from-the-tree fruit.

Last year was an embarrassment of riches that led many with fruit trees to curse the apricots and plums and their messiness or the apples and cherries and their “worms.” But the rest of us basked in the glory of the bounty .

The hope is that 2017 will also treat our fruit trees with kindness, but we can help those trees stay healthy by pruning them this winter.

Many of you have neglected or forgotten apple trees on your property, and it may be necessary to prune them to reduce their height and thin their branches. Doing this will ensure better light penetration and air flow, and hopefully increased fruit production. For apple trees, you can remove up to 30 percent of the canopy every year, so optimistically, by year three or four, the tree will be at a manageable height.

Start by making sure your pruners, loppers or saw are clean (spray with 70 percent rubbing alcohol) and sharpened. The first pruning cuts should be to remove all dead, diseased or broken branches. Then look at branches that are crossing or could be crossing in the next couple of years and remove the least desirable one. Branches that rub can form wounds that become open doors to diseases.

Next, we don’t want branches that might grow toward the center of the tree (we want good light penetration), nor do we want water sprouts (rapid, vertical growth on the upper side of branches).

Step back and look at the tree. Winter is a good time to look at the “structure” of the tree because leaves can hide imperfections. Make sure the tree is balanced and you don’t take too much off one side.

If you are comfortable with the balance and haven’t reached the 30 percent mark, focus on bringing the tree back to a more manageable size. Ideally, you prune just above an outward-facing bud with a slanting cut. This will hopefully direct growth away from the trunk. A flat cut above the bud allows two lower buds to release and grow shots.

Remember, reducing the height of the tree is a three-plus year process. It cannot be accomplished in one season.

Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office.