Kio has taken some flack from arborists claiming that heavy pruning is bad:
“I bought a lot of fruit trees and bushes and plant cuttings and I’ve been planting my butt off to get a nice decent sized beginning food forest started. I’ve got a persimmon, some figs, a pineapple guava, lots of blueberries and a few other things and I’m hoping to get some more in March. I live in North FL, near __________, and I’ve always loved the resources you put out, I’ve bought almost every one of your ebooks and read them and I’ve found most of your methods to work really well.
I watched your video today about pruning, and had been hearing from other gardening and homesteader friends that taking such a heavy handed approach to pruning is great for starting woody plants like fruit trees and bushes.
Note: here is the video referenced:
I did that to what I planted this past weekend and I’m planning on trying my hand at making a few cuttings. I shared some pictures on a gardening community discord I’m on… And a few more traditional gardeners were very upset, naturally, with me. One of them claimed to be an arborist with 20 years of experience and said something along the lines of “Needing to understand what happens when you take such an aggressive approach and what the outcomes are.” And that in his experience it causes more harm than good, and creates scenarios where excessive management is required and increases the amount of “plant stress.” And another person said something about them learning similar things and that lopping off “the entire canopy” was taught to be a bad thing during his time at university studying plant science.
I liked the video and I’ve found most of your methods to work very well as I’ve said, but I also tend to be a skeptical person and rather scientifically inclined, so I’m curious if you can offer any more information in this regard about the claims and things these other gardeners have said. I also plan on purchasing those pruning books you recommended. The gardeners provided a few sources for some of their claims, including some forestry sources on proper pruning, and I unfortunately can’t help but be even more skeptical, as modern agriculture practices have done a lot of damage to the Earth.”
Our car was in the shop and I was tired out, wishing that the mechanics worked faster, that the weather was cooler and that I didn’t have so much farther to walk… and then I spotted something interesting. A tree. A tamarind tree. A tamarind tree covered in tamarinds.
Yet unlike most other tamarind trees I had seen, this tree wasn’t towering overhead. Instead, it was short and gnarled, bearing tamarind pods within easy picking range.
On closer inspection, I realized it was under a power line and had been cut repeatedly by the power company. Eventually, it had decided to stop growing “up” and start growing fruit!
Along the same road I had watched people knocking tamarind pods out of trees using long bamboo poles – but this tree could be picked right next to the ground.
No, the tree hadn’t been pruned “properly” or given much care, but it sure was convenient – and it was very much alive and productive.
After seeing that, I realized I could do a lot more with tree training than I had previously been comfortable doing.
If I could keep fruit trees in reach – and not gigantic – I could plant a lot more varieties of fruit. I might even be able to incorporate lots of fruit trees inside of my vegetable gardens. There are so many possibilities! Just because the “maximum height” of a tree is listed as 50 feet, it doesn’t mean you need to let it get that tall. You might be able to keep it at ten feet. Or even five feet.
This concept had now become part of my new Grocery Row gardening system. Over the fall and winter I have been building beds and planting them with fruits, nuts and berries. Around those, I am planting flowers, roots and vegetables.
I am no longer afraid to cut trees to the size and shape I want – and I have been doing lots of reading and experimenting over the last couple of years. Right now I’m cutting new trees to shape – and I am being brutal!
You can make trees grow sideways, up against walls, along wires like grapes, into hedges… the possibilities are incredible. I have come to really enjoy pruning. You can fit a ton of trees in your yard if you like. Don’t worry about those who yell “YOU KILLED IT!” when they see you prune. Trees can take a lot, and if trained well they’ll reward you in the future.
Lose Your Fear of Pruning
Also, I usually propagate a lot of my own trees. If I kill one through pruning, who cares? I have plenty of backups.
People are way, way too tentative. I haven’t actually killed a tree with pruning yet. If you cut them at this time of year while they are dormant, they seem to hardly notice. And despite all the lectures people get from extension offices about “not topping crepe myrtles,” for example, I see lots and lots of old crepe myrtle trees that have been topped a zillion times without dying and they look just fine in bloom.
Just consider your goals: are you trying to keep a tree tiny? Are you pruning for shape? Are you simply a psychopath? Do you want fruit this year – or are you unconcerned with fruit for now?
If I want big trees, I just let them grow. I don’t prune every tree. If you start seedling trees and want them to grow into big shade trees, great – let them grow. Pruning may mean you have to maintain them more and if you won’t want to bother, fine.
I saw the peach trees growing at the farm of a former UF scientist and he had cut all their trunks at 18″ or so above the ground and trained them into vase shapes. The fruit got lots of sun and was easy to pick. Alternately, I have seen big peach trees that have never been cut and they’re a tall mess of branches without the ease of harvest.
If you want a more moderate approach to pruning, Steven Edholm’s video where he talks about his fruit tree pruning is quite good:
There is more than one way to
skin prune a cat pear tree.
I consider myself a ‘conservative pruner, not taking more than 1/3 of a tree per year. I keep the fruit trees short – cut back to 12 feet for non-dwarf pears, but will take 1 in 9 hazelnuts to the ground every year to keep them rejuvenated. Pecans, though .. those I let grow as big as they want, with just a little shaping early on to encourage branching. The nuts from a 100’ pecan (or walnut, if you go for that sort of thing) aren’t harmed from falling from that height, and those make good shade trees. Spending a few minutes per tree per year pruning seems like a lot less effort (and risk) than spending half an hour up in a ladder or hoist – if I even had one – to get fruit out of a tall tree.
If the tree is a brand new bare-root, cutting it down to 12-18″ is not weird at all. Sure it’s more than the 1/3 maxim, but the roots were also pruned before it was sent to you. Some folks insist on cutting down new trees so that the whip size gets closer to the rootball size. As long as you don’t cut off the grafted wood, I’m not sure there is anything you “can’t do” to a newly planted little tree.
I live in Arizona and the big killer of overpruned trees is sunburn. But we have exceptionally high UV and 115+ degree summer days. And if you are doing the pruning when the trees are small, they’ll also be easier to shade while they grow some new defenses back.
Like David said… if you want a big tree, stay light with your pruning tasks. If you want a smaller tree or an interesting shape (espalier, step-over, hedge, etc) then yes, it takes continued effort.