Fruit Tree Pruning for Early 2021


I know everyone is anxious to prune their fruit trees, and some can be - starting this week.

Last year at this time, experts advised holding off on pruning citrus until March 1.But with the warmer-than-normal January and no hint of freezing weather coming our way for two weeks, I’ll give you the green light to prune nearly any fruit tree beginning today.

Temperate or stone fruit such as peaches, plums, apples and pears can often be pruned in early February, no matter what the forecasters say. Below, you’ll find good advice and links on pruning plus a little on blueberry and blackberry care. It’s an amalgamation of information from trusted friends in the fruit tree world, including Chandler from The Garden Academy and Beverly Welch with the Arbor Gate. It’s mostly a bunch of do's and don’ts about pruning early in February.

One advantage of living in the “bridge” between the temperate and tropical zones is our ability to grow many varieties from both. The challenge is learning how to take care of them. When late winter is waning and spring is right around the corner, the temptation to start pruning can be overwhelming, especially when we get a string of sunny days in the 70s. But that’s 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.

Now while I’m giving most of you the okay to prune citrus now, those living in our northern and western suburbs should probably hold off - there may be a surprise frost or two in your future. We often have unexpected frosts in late February and early March.

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

These trees lose their leaves and have a deep-winter dormancy – apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums, pluots and apriums. They require annual pruning to stimulate new fruiting wood, to control size, and to maintain a strong structure. You should prune them while they are in the 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 are a result of factors other than pruning - chill hours, day length, and temperatures.

If buds are swelling and showing color, still avoid pruning if a hard freeze is actually forecast. All fruit trees are less hardy for 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 trees are semi-tropical, and unlike temperate fruits, they do 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. Avocados are also included in this category.

Citrus and avocados are usually evergreen in our climate, but 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 damaged wood exposes undamaged wood to a subsequent frost. Plus, what looks like dead wood may surprise you with new growth in May or June. It’s best to remove the apparent damage in stages until you are absolutely sure of its extent.

The standard rule is to wait until very late February or March 1 to prune most citrus. So, waiting a couple more weeks might be in order, unless you reside south of Interstate 10. There, I think this year we can move things up a bit. However, up north and out west, let’s wait just two more weeks to get to Feb. 15 and check the forecast again. If there’s no threat of even a tiny frost at that point, I’ll swing the barn doors wide and give everyone carte blanche to prune all citrus.

Remember … pruning reduces cold hardiness for a couple of weeks. If you rush, you run the risk of more damage, even at temperatures that would normally not be a problem.

One perplexing thing about citrus is that fruit or blooms or both always seem to be on the trees when it is time to prune. Some varieties even carry 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 and still have a good harvest.

Plus, a benefit of pruning while the tree is blooming will be your ability to identify fruit wood. You’ll spot areas that might need a bit of thinning to improve sunlight penetration because they won’t have as many blossoms.

If a tree needs regenerative pruning - to thin an overgrown interior, for example, or to greatly reduce 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.

And 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 a vast number of tropical fruits that can be grown on the Gulf Coast, and 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 put things off 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.

Texas A&M links for more info:

If you need clarification on any of this, give me a call this weekend on the GardenLine radio show.

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