Pruning- Pruning the fruit tree is an important step in improving fruit quality. Fire blight, powdery mildew and summer rots can be reduced by carefully pruning out limbs harboring disease inoculum. Pruning trees should be done according to the desired structural shape of the tree.
Prune out all broken and dead branches and any sucker growth around the bottom of the tree trunk. Once the dead and broken material has been removed, the general shape of the healthy tree can be seen. Correct pruning helps improve overall air movement and sunlight penetration into the canopy. It also helps reduce disease and insect pressure. A rule of thumb I often use when pruning fruit trees is, “When in doubt, prune it out”. All pruning should be completed no later than mid-March for best results here in Ohio.
If trees have been neglected for several years, they may need to be rejuvenated. A second step is to decide how big/tall the tree should be. A tree with dwarfing rootstock can be maintained at about 8 to 10 feet tall, semi-dwarf rootstock at about 12 to 16 feet and a standard rootstock at about 16 to 20 feet tall. If your trees have not been pruned in many years, you should not cut them to the desired height in one year.
Your plan should be to reduce the tree height over a period of about 3 years by removing no more than one-third of the height each year (ex. 25’ tree to a final height of 16’— lower at a rate of about 3’ each year). Do not cut all the limbs in half or “Top” the tree, like some people and or tree trimming companies do with shade trees, to reduce their height. Pick and choose limbs that can be cut back to the approximate desired length, at a lateral branch, and make the cut there. “Work” the tree height down systematically over the time period rather topping.
When working with neglected trees do not feed the tree with nitrogen after pruning. Nitrogen applications would stimulate growth and compound the problem you are trying to fix. Water sprouts will likely develop around or below pruned areas during the spring and summer. Removal of this vegetative growth should be frequently done by rubbing off or pulling off the shoot while it is still short and green around the bottom (<10-12 inches in length). Pulling is recommended rather than cutting so you remove the entire shoot and not have a short stub remaining. If the shoots become brown and woody at the base, pulling may no longer be an option because you may cause unwanted tearing into the bark. Cutting is then preferred.
Disease Control- Early spring is the best time to apply sprays to control certain insects and diseases. Gardeners who have had problems in the past years should consider applying early season sprays to prevent or minimize pest damage to the leaves and fruit of the trees. Additional applications of fungicide and insecticide sprays during the growing season may be necessary to control specific pests. Early application of the proper sprays should minimize the use of pesticides during the remainder of the growing season.
Dormant oil sprays are intended to be used before the leaf or fruit buds open in the spring. This can effectively control many scale insects, European red mite eggs and aphids. Be sure to check the label, for temperature restrictions before applying dormant oils. Early season fungicide sprays should be applied at the green tip through pink or white bud growth stages. These sprays will help minimize diseases. Application of fungicides while trees are blooming may be made, but insecticide sprays should not be made during the flower blooming stage to protect pollinating bees. Additional applications of fungicides or insecticides may be needed to insure high quality fruit later in the season.
For more information about pruning specific trees or applying sprays correctly, contact Mark at the Monroe County Extension office at 740-472-0810. Bulletins and factsheets are available which contain pruning information. Also available are spray guides to help you produce high quality fruit your trees are capable of producing.