Saturday I went up to Raven Hill Farm in Waterboro Maine for a fruit tree pruning workshop. MOFGA is the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, a great outfit that among other things puts on the Commonground Fair (formerly in Windsor, now in Unity) in late September. The workshop was taught by a professional orchardist, and consisted of instruction in the AM and demo/practice in the PM. I learned a lot and more importantly got to see the techniques in action, which is a lot more helpful than reading about it in a book.
The goal of pruning in the style I learned is to end up with a roughly conical-shaped tree with a central leader and approximately four permanent lower scaffold branches at about hip height; none of the branches above the lower scaffold are permanent; you might have a couple more layers of scaffold branches but as they get large they are cut off, and new ones trained to replace them. This was perhaps the most surprising thing that I learned at the workshop – the importance of thinking ahead several years and strategizing about which branches to encourage to become replacements. Its also important to train the branches to split off at a broad angle from the trunk; not quite 90 degrees but if the angle between branches is too acute, bark gets included and it becomes a weak point that is bound to break later under a load of fruit or ice.
On Sunday I went up to Five Islands and put what I learned to work. My grandfather has probably 10 or so semidwarf apple trees of various flavors and ages, and he, my mom and I have been doing our best with them up to now, without knowing exactly what we were doing. I don’t think we were too far off, but we hadn’t been aggressive enough – the rule of thumb is, you want to be able to throw a cat through the tree, but not a dog. In pruning, the big decisions are made with a chainsaw-on-a-stick, a truly fearsome instrument; fortunately my folks have one. My mom and I used it to lighten up the trees substantially, removing crossing, drooping, and crowded branches, as well as those that point back towards the center of the tree. We had spent a lot of time shortening limbs that seemed too lanky; as a result I think our old trees got sort of bushier than necessary; the instructor tended more towards letting things grow and then removing them entirely, back where they joined the main trunk or branch.
After dealing with the old trees, we went up to the new orchard and gave the new trees their first pruning, according to the principles I learned. In many cases we tied down branches that were too vertical, or propped them apart with notched sticks. We’ll learn a lot in the coming years about how to take care of trees.