There’s nothing prettier in the spring than Santa Fe’s bountiful fruit trees in bloom. The landscape gets painted in pastels and jewel tones as the town prepares for an exciting new season filled with visitors and fun outdoor activities.
Living in Northern New Mexico has its own reality, however, and hard frosts are still possible for another few months. Each year, gardeners and farmers alike pray for a gentle spring, one where their prized fruit trees escape the treacheries of harsh freezes that have disastrous effects on the fruit. So, we keep our fingers crossed, hoping this spring will be a warmer one filled with much-needed precipitation that our mercurial winter so lacked. How nice it would be to enjoy the view and have the opportunity to eat good fruit later in the season.
One thing we can do to help our fruit trees is to prune them this month. This is very important, especially for young trees. Pruning helps establish thick stems, opens up a canopy for light to promote flowering and minimizes the rubbing or crossing of branches. The goal of a fruit tree’s first few years is to survive and establish in order to maximize root growth for uptake of water and nutrients. Fruit trees often do not produce fruit for several years until their root system is established, so caring for your tree early on is the best way to ensure future health and production.
Once trees have become established, pruning is needed to maintain the size and shape of the tree, for thinning and for removal of diseased branches. Pruning should be done during the dormant season, late fall to early spring, when disease-carrying insects are not prevalent and the cuts can heal faster. Pruning too early can interrupt the trees’ dormancy and prompt premature budding.
When pruning, there are some guidelines that can make even first-time gardeners feel confident they won’t damage the tree:
u Start with sharp pruners, loppers or a saw.
u Remove any branches that are crossed over or rubbing.
u Remove all damaged or dying branches that look diseased.
u Cut the previous year’s growth on each main branch one-third or more to a bud facing in the required direction. This ultimately encourages the development of new branches.
u Look at the tree’s trunk for signs of trauma; gummosis is not uncommon in the winter. If this occurs, keep an eye on it and leave the tree alone. Painting or tarring is not always recommended. Contact a fruit tree expert.
Each tree has its own individual issues and growth patterns. Always work with the tree’s natural shape, and if a branch is overly damaged all the way to the trunk, it may require complete removal. Always make sure to cut outside the branch collar, otherwise you can create a larger wound in the trunk that leaves it susceptible to disease. When you are just pruning a branch that has become too lengthy, cut it back no more than one-third.
Any cuts can leave a tree vulnerable to blight or pest invasions. Most fruit trees are in the Rosaceae family, which make them prone to many diseases. Remember, if a branch is diseased, the portion of the diseased branch should be disposed of offsite to prevent reinfection of the tree. Branches may be burned or taken with other organic green waste to Buckman Road Recycling & Transfer Station (www.sfswma.org).
Pruning your fruit trees each year is a great way to not only ensure their health but to maximize fruit production. If you have questions or problems with your fruit tree, contact the Santa Fe Master Gardeners Program (sfmga.org), your county extension office (santafeextension.nmsu.edu) or visit your local Santa Fe nurseries: Agua Fria Nursery, Payne’s Nurseries, Newman’s Nursery and Plants of the Southwest.
Carole has been in the floriculture industry, from international wholesale and retail sales to event planning, for more than 20 years. She has floral studios in Santa Fe and Baltimore, was a Santa Fe Master Gardener, and supports local/national flower farms and beautification projects. She is available for demonstrations and lectures. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.flowerspy.com.