When to prune fruit trees on the Gulf Coast

posted by Randy Lemmon -

Advice from The Garden Academy’s Angela Chandler

Everyone is anxious to prune their fruit trees, and while some can be pruned starting this week, citrus experts still advise holding off until March 1. So, some fruit tree owners should hurry up, while others should hold their horses.  

Temperate fruit such as peaches, plums, apples and pears should be pruned right now. But wait on the citrus, in case we get anything close to a freeze.

If you need more information or have pruning questions, come see me this Saturday at the Cy-Fair Home & Garden Show at the Berry Center on Barker-Cypress Road. Get discount tickets at the show website.

Meanwhile, I’ve asked our friend Angela Chandler from The Garden Academy for some do's and don’ts about pruning during this awkward time on the calendar: 

One of the advantages of living in the “bridge” between the temperate and tropical zones is that we can grow many varieties of fruits from each zone.  The challenge is learning how to take care of all of those varieties.  

When late winter is waning and spring is right around the corner, the temptation to start pruning is almost overwhelming, especially when we get a string of sunny, balmy days in the 70s.  But here is where our wires get crossed.  On one hand, we should prune temperate fruits before they leaf out, but we have winter-weary semi-tropicals and tropicals that we can’t wait to clean up.   It’s perfectly fine to start pruning the temperate fruits in late winter.  But hang tight!  Prune those tropicals too early, and you could be in for a dreadful surprise. 

While we might use the calendar as a reminder that pruning time is coming, we must actually prune more according to the forecast.  We often have late frosts, and not all of them are predicted.  Some sneak up on our most savvy forecasters.   Each group of fruits has a little different pruning time based on its growth cycle and fruiting habits.  Knowing those habits can help you make good timing decisions. 

Temperate fruit trees

Temperate fruit trees are those that lose their leaves and have a deep-winter dormancy – apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums, pluots, apriums.  They require annual pruning to stimulate new fruiting wood, to control size, and to maintain a strong structure.   You should prune these fruits while they are in their dormant stage - as early as January and as late as mid-February, about the same time we prune roses.  Don’t fear that you will trigger early growth.  Leafing and budding out are a result of factors other than pruning - chill hours, day length, and temperatures.  

If the buds are swelling and showing color, you should still avoid pruning if there is an actual forecast for a hard freeze.   All fruit trees are less hardy up to two weeks after pruning, and fully open fruit flowers can be damaged by late frosts.  If you are concerned, prune the varieties with the highest chill requirements first, and prune the earliest bloomers at the last possible moment.  

Some growers choose to do summer pruning as well.  It’s a great way to manage tree size and excess vigor, a characteristic of many temperate fruits.  Excess vigor results in vegetative growth, not fruiting growth.  Summer pruning should be done soon after harvest.

Citrus  

Citrus are semi-tropical, and unlike temperate fruits, citrus does not need pruning for production.  We prune citrus for appearance, to control height and width, and to open the tree up for sunlight penetration, air circulation, and a more elegant structure. 

Citrus are usually evergreen in our climate, but can they can be damaged and even defoliated in our worst winters.  It’s hard to tolerate such an unkempt look in our gardens for weeks after a freeze, but it is not wise to rush to clean them up.  Removing the damaged wood exposes the undamaged wood to the next frost.  In addition, what looks like dead wood may surprise you with new growth in May, or even as late as June.  It’s best to remove the apparent damage in stages until you are absolutely sure of its extent. 

Wait until at least the first of March to prune citrus.  Before pruning, check the forecast for the next two weeks.  If a freeze is predicted within that time, WAIT.  Remember … pruning reduces cold hardiness for a couple of weeks after pruning.  If you rush, you run the risk of more damage, even at temperatures that would normally not be a problem for that variety.  One perplexing thing about citrus is that it always seems that there’s fruit, or blooms, or both on the trees when it is time to prune.   Some varieties often carry their fruit through winter and into spring.  

If the tree has been well pruned in previous years and just needs a light shaping up, don’t worry about the blooms or fruit.  Any fruit in your way is harvestable.  Citrus produces blooms abundantly and aborts 70-80 percent shortly after blooming, so you can remove a lot of blooms as you prune and still have a good harvest.   

One good thing about pruning while the tree is blooming is that you will readily be able to identify fruit wood.  You can see if there are areas that might need a bit of thinning to improve sunlight penetration, because those areas won’t have as many blossoms. 

If the tree needs regenerative pruning, such as thinning an overgrown interior or greatly reducing the height, give thought to the canopy that will be left.  Remove about 1/3 of what you anticipate requiring, then wait to see how much canopy the tree develops in the summer.  It may take several seasons to get it into the shape you desire. 

If you want to improve fruit production, consider a late-summer or early autumn thinning.  A light thinning at that time stimulates fresh fruiting wood.  It is perfectly acceptable to do this while the tree is between blooming and fruiting, or even when it is carrying developing fruits.  

Tropicals

There are SO many tropical fruits that can be grown on the Gulf Coast.  It would be impossible to cover them individually.  But in general, most tropical fruits can be pruned right after harvest.  Many produce on new wood, and pruning after harvest allows them to spend their energy developing new branches, twigs, and fruit wood.  If your tropicals have winter damage that needs to be pruned, wait until ALL DANGER of frost has passed.  It would be good to wait until at least March 15, and even better if you can wait until the Spring Equinox.  Again … keep in mind that pruning reduces cold hardiness for at least two weeks.  Be ready to protect them if the weather takes a downward turn.

Cy-Fair Home & Garden Show

While the Cy-Fair Home and Garden Show runs both this Saturday and Sunday at the Berry Center, I will only be there doing the GardenLine radio show, seminar and book-signing on Saturday.  The doors open at 9 a.m., and we will be broadcasting from just inside the front doors.   At 10 a.m., I’ll be available to take questions on pruning fruit trees or any other plant.  Or you can sit in and ask questions during our 10:30 seminar. I’ll also have new Lemmonhead shirts for the first 20 people at the seminar, and free bottles of soil activator and fertilizers from Medina and Lady Bug for anyone who asks a question.  Then, from 11:30 until at least 2:30, I’ll be back at the broadcast area for more Q&A and a book-signing.  

This will be the last Cy-Fair Home and Garden Show where my book, “Texas Tough Gardening,” will be available.  I’ll likely broadcast from the show again in 2019, but the book will be out of print by this summer.  The first 25 people who buy two or more books on Saturday can also snag a new Lemmonhead shirt OR a bottle of soil activator.    

We had a ton of fun and got to see several GardenLine partners during the Sugar Land Home & Garden Show, and I hope this weekend’s event is even better.  But you’ve got to participate to make that a reality.  The Berry Center is on Baker-Cypress Road at West Road, 8 miles south of U.S. 290 or 2 miles north of FM 529.