We thought a few of the more frequently asked questions – and the relevant answers – about autumn pruning of fruit trees and ornamental shrubs would be useful. We’ve also included an outline of the different types of secateurs available, as these are the most commonly used garden tool for pruning.
Q: Do I prune my apple tree as soon as I’ve picked all the fruit?
The best time to prune most apple (and pear) trees is during their dormant period; this means the apple tree should have lost all its leaves. Although pruning is preferably carried out over the winter months it is possible to prune as late as March when the leaves are starting to grow again. We have pruned as late as bud break, or just before the blossom opens, but this would be a light prune rather than anything major. Later pruning than this encourages the growth of ‘water shoots’ or non fruiting stems.
When pruning apple trees in particular, you need to know whether the fruit is carried on ‘spurs’ or clusters of short stems along the length of the branch; or whether it is a tip bearer variety, where the fruit is borne at the end of the branch. With spur fruiting varieties you can prune back to a spur, to reduce the length of a branch and still get a crop of apples next year. Spurs take many years to develop and it pays to have a range of younger and older spurs on a tree. Very congested spurs can be thinned out.
The majority of pears are tip fruiting, so the way to prune these, and tip fruiting apples is the basically the same. Cut back some of the older fruiting stems to three buds, which will encourage new growth and fruit bearing tips.
Winter pruning of apple and pear trees is for those which are not ‘trained’ into shapes such as espalier or step over cordon. With trained fruit trees pruning takes place in the summer. This is because they have already been grafted on to a rootstock to encourage growth to a certain size and shape, and then further trained to a particular shape before you purchase them. As most are on a dwarfing rootstock to encourage fruiting rather than growth, light summer pruning is carried out maintain the shape and remove excess foliage.
Q: Why are cherry trees pruned in the summer?
Stone fruits, which include cherries, plums, peaches and nuts such as almonds should be pruned when they are in leaf, ie during their growing season. This is because they are otherwise likely to succumb to a virus called ‘silver leaf’, which can potentially kill the tree through the open wounds, or pruning cuts.
Remember, if you’re pruning a cherry tree in spring and cutting off the blossom, you’re also cutting off the fruit-to-be. Obvious, but it’s amazing how many people don’t connect the two things.
With all pruning, clean cuts, ie no ragged edges, are essential. Prune back to a bud, but not too close so that the bud is damaged. If you’re cutting off a large part of a branch, prune back to a sensible point, for example, where the branch joins a larger branch.
Q: I thought you were supposed to prune flowering shrubs after they’ve flowered, but my neighbours prune their buddleia in the spring. So should I prune my buddleia in early autumn after it has flowered or in the spring?
The general rule is to prune flowering shrubs after they’ve finished flowering. However, it also depends on whether the bush flowers on new growth or older growth and its overall form or shape. Buddleia flowers in late summer on new growth put on in the spring and early summer. If you prune it in the autumn, it may put on some new growth before winter, and then more growth come the spring, giving you long stems with flowers at the top. Pruning the buddleia in the early spring reduces the amount of stem length so the scented flowers will be nearer your nose, and you’ll have a better view of the butterflies who adore buddleia.
However, some buddleias can put on so much growth that they look untidy after flowering, with flopping stems. In which case give them a prune now, but be prepared to prune again, more lightly, in the spring.
Remember when you’re pruning to take out the older thicker stems first. In fact it’s a good idea with shrubs like buddleia, forsythia and lilac to take out a third of the older stems each year, to prevent them from getting to the state where you see woody stems and few flowers.
Q: Secateurs are useful tools in the garden; but why do secateurs have different shaped blades?
Secateurs have different shaped blades so they can cut different types of wood or stem. Bypass secateurs are used for live wood as they give a clean cut, minimising the damage to the stem. They have a scissor like action with two sharp blades; some have a ratchet mechanism, which gives extra leverage when cutting. Anvil secateurs are used for tough woody stems and for cutting dead wood; they have a single blade which cuts against a block or anvil.
As with any tool, try different makes and sizes before you buy; and if you normally wear gloves when pruning, remember to wear gloves when trying them out!
There are also variations on the secateurs tool, some of which are more specialist. For example, for easily trimming your topiary to shape, topiary shears are an asset. Although basically a scissor action, topiary shears have an angled handle rather than a straight handle and blade setting as on normal secateurs, so that it is easier to hold them and neatly trim your topiary to shape. ‘Snippers’ with a smaller pair of blades than secateurs, are useful for deadheading soft flower stems, trimming house plants, flower arranging and cutting herb leaves.
If you would like to learn how to properly prune the trees and shrubs in your garden, we offer gardening lessons and courses. Or we can do the pruning for you if you prefer; just get in touch. For more on tools, have a look at Nathan’s ‘Caring for your Garden Tools’ blogs – one on garden hand tools, one on garden power tools.
Enjoy your garden,