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Garden Help Desk: Fruit tree pruning season draws near to gardeners

By Usu Extension Desk garden Help Desk - | Jan 24, 2021
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Deep watering at the end of autumn plus a deep layer of mulch can reduce or even eliminate the need to prune out dead twigs in the early spring.

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A deep soak in late November and a thick layer of mulch can reduce winter damage on evergreens by slowing down evaporation from the soil and delaying freezing of the soil.

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Frozen soil shouldn't be watered.  If the soil is frozen, a screwdriver can't penetrate the soil if it's frozen.  This screwdriver couldn't be pushed in beyond the mulch. The tree shouldn't be watered yet.

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Lawns don't need water now while they're dormant. You might need to water an area of lawn if that is where most of your evergreen's roots are, but you shouldn't water if the soil under the lawn is frozen like the lawn in this photo.

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You can reduce or even prevent winter damage to evergreen needles by giving trees a deep soak in late autumn so that trees go into winter well hydrated.

This is the time of year when we start getting fruit tree pruning questions, so let’s take a look at a couple of questions from this week.

Question: When should I prune my fruit trees? We live in Spanish Fork and have plum, nectarine, apricot and peach trees. I know they should be pruned while still dormant, but I’m not sure when to expect them to come back to life this spring.

Can you tell us real quick if now is a good time to prune our 2-year-old peach tree? I’ve been watching YouTube videos on how to do the pruning and some say to prune before any budding in spring and some say don’t prune in the winter for fear of disease and some say to wait until you see buds and then prune. Do you have some instructions on the best time of year and method of pruning our 2-year-old peach tree?

Answer: February is a good time to begin pruning home orchard apple trees, but stone fruits aren’t usually pruned until mid-March, finishing up by mid-April. There isn’t a set date for pruning your home orchard; kind of fruit you’re growing and late winter and early spring weather each year will help you decide when to prune.

A 2-year-old peach tree probably hasn’t outgrown its need for some training yet. Focus on good scaffold structure, not fruit production this year and look forward to your first small crop next year. Give mature trees their annual production pruning. You’ll find publications and videos about pruning fruit trees at different stages of maturity by searching on our website, extension.usu.edu.

The bacteria, fungi and pests that cause or spread disease aren’t active in the winter, so disease from winter pruning isn’t usually a concern. There is a good reason to wait, though.

Pruning can reduce the cold hardiness of your fruit tree for a couple of weeks, so before you prune check the weather forecast and avoid pruning if very cold weather is in the 10-14-day forecast.

Waiting until spring will also give you milder weather and a more comfortable pruning session. You’ll be more methodical and less likely to take shortcuts if you aren’t trying to work in freezing weather.

Question: With the extreme lack of precipitation this year, should we be watering our yards? Especially our trees?

Answer: Evergreen trees and shrubs can benefit from a deep soak during the winter if the soil isn’t frozen and if there isn’t enough moisture in the soil. The cold temperatures will keep our lawns dormant for a while longer, so there’s no need to do any lawn watering at this time unless that’s the only way to water a thirsty evergreen tree.

All plants lose moisture through their needles and leaves, and that moisture is replaced as water moves from the soil into the roots and up through the plant. For deciduous trees and shrubs that moisture loss is very restricted once the leaves drop but for evergreens, this moisture loss happens all year round.

Our dry winter winds can pull moisture out of leaves and needles and if the soil is dry or frozen that water can’t be replaced. Broadleaf evergreens may show severe leaf scorch and needles on conifers can turn brown and dry out from the tips down.

Some areas in Utah Valley are colder than others, so your soil may still be frozen. You can check this with a long screwdriver; it won’t move through the soil easily if the soil is dry and won’t move through at all if the soil is frozen. There’s no point trying to water frozen soil and it’s unhealthy for your trees to water them if there is still adequate soil moisture.

If your trees were watered deeply in late November and you also topped off a deep layer of mulch at that time, there could still be enough soil moisture for them now.

If your soil isn’t frozen, you’ve checked the soil moisture and decided you need to water, give a slow, deep soak over the root zone of your evergreens.

Question: Is it time to prune my roses?

Answer: Not yet. It’s the middle of winter and overnight temperatures are still cold enough to cause damage to the canes on some varieties.

By late February into early March, we should be having better weather for pruning roses. Keep an eye on the weather forecast, watching for steady overnight lows that are no longer in the teens and twenties.


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