Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
March, 2009
Regional Report

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This heirloom apple tree is more than 80 years old and still has potential with the right pruning and care.

Preserving the Apple Tree

There's a definite feeling of spring in the air and it's time to get out your pruning tools. Though some early buds have already started to expand, now is the perfect time to start or finish up your pruning in the home orchard. While the trees are without their leaves, you can discern the branch development and remove any suckers or unproductive branches. This is also a good time to keep your trees at the height that is most convenient for you to harvest fruit.

Regular and proper pruning of fruit trees and fruiting shrubs contributes to healthy growth and improves fruit production. As I help pruning the old orchard in western Colorado, it brings back memories and lessons learned from my uncle, a seasoned rancher and farmer, who set out every spring to get the orchard in shape.

Pruning can be a major task for him now that he's in his 80s, so it's my turn to take instruction and sharpen my skills at pruning. The older trees generally take longer to work over, but despite the aching muscles, a feeling of accomplishment is deeply felt when the job is finished. That 80-year-old apple tree continues to grow, bloom, and produce an abundance of superb and tart apples for eating and baking.

Apples, pears, flowering crabapples, raspberries, currants, and other members of the rose family should be pruned early before full leaf emergence. They are more prone to bacterial diseases that are easily spread during the active growing season. The fresh cuts from early pruning will dry and close over more rapidly, unlike during the summer months, when diseases are more opportunistic to spread in the wind and make entry through fresh wounds or pruning cuts.

One of the old-fashioned remedies learned from my seasoned gardening relatives is to disinfect pruning shears and saws after each pruning cut. In years past liquid chlorine bleach was the choice for disinfecting the blades of shears and saws, but chlorine is corrosive and leaves oxidation or rust on metal surfaces. So now my preference is a bottle of economical rubbing alcohol (70 to 90 percent isopropyl alcohol) which works just fine. This wiping-down technique will remove most, if not all, of bacterial spores and other diseases before you make the next pruning cut.

Growing your own organic tree fruits and small fruits is truly rewarding and a sustainable way of gardening. Nothing tastes better than tree-ripened apples, grapes, strawberries, raspberries, and my favorite, apricots. Now if I could only distract the birds to fly elsewhere and grow their own "bird orchard". Oh well, I really don't mind sharing a little with my feathered friends.

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