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  • Nancy Lowe

Grow Great Fruit with Winter Pruning

One of my favourite things to do in the garden in winter is fruit pruning. Right through Autumn, I’m keeping an eye on my fruiting trees and bushes, watching for when those last leaves fall off, so I can set off down the garden with a set of snips and a pruning saw in my pockets to see what needs doing.

It’s absolutely possible to grow fruit without any pruning at all, but really – do give it a go! Pruning helps to keep your trees and bushes healthy and providing you with really great quality fruit. But actually, the real reason why I enjoy it so much is that it’s a brilliant way to get to know your fruit trees and bushes really well. Each year you come back to tend to them again, it’s like greeting an old friend, checking up on how the last year went for them. Looking at how they grew since their last cut, it’s like you can see the story of their year – their years in fact – written all over their branches. I can see the drought years, the rainy years, the years when a branch came down in a storm and then the recovery growth that came the next year. As you work around each plant, visiting each and every branch and stem, you build a lasting relationship with each other that makes your harvest of fruit each year all the more gratefully received. This gentle pruning and tending – removing awkwardly crossing branches, taking out pieces of deadwood, bringing light and airflow into the core of the plant and creating opportunities for fresh growth to spring up – it all feels like your gift of thanks for the fruit they’ve supplied. And the improvements in fruit quality you can see as years pass by – especially noticeable if you’re tending to old and neglected trees or bushes – this starts to feel like their gift of thanks to you.

apple tree stem showing pruning cut for shoots and fruit
Shoots have grown from the area of last winter's pruning cut. Note the fat new fruit buds further down the stem.

If you’re new to pruning, there is some great advice about pruning fruit trees and bushes on the RHS’s website, so take a look there. There are also loads of videos on youtube, but do be aware that there are almost as many different approaches to pruning fruit trees in particular as there are people making videos about it! Pick one approach and stick to it for at least 2-3 years so you can see what it’s doing. The pruning cuts you’re making this year will affect the growth pattern next year and on into the future, so you need to be consistent for a few years to really get to see the logic behind pruning advice for yourself.


Beyond that, learning to prune is all about learning to see the shape and growth pattern of your plants. How do they respond to being cut? Notice what direction new shoots grow away from the stem and how that relates to where the bud was positioned around that stem. Notice how many shoots burst from a cut end compared to one that wasn’t cut. How vigorously do horizontal branches send up shoots compared to vertical branches? Learn to recognise buds that will become flowers and buds that will become shoots or leaves. Notice what part of last year’s shoots have fruit buds on and what portion of them have leaf buds. There is a logic and a pattern to all of these things and all pruning advice is making use of that logic. But each individual tree and bush will have its own character, it’s own particular way of growing, it’s own sense of vigour and fruitfulness. As you get to know your plants and as you get more practiced at pruning them, you’re going to start to get a more intuitive sense about what pruning you need to do each year.

apple tree shoot
Note the wrinkly section where growth of this unpruned shoot started up again at the beginning of this year.

As ever, if you’d like any help getting into pruning, I’m really happy to work alongside you, giving you some pointers. For anyone local to me – near Shrewsbury, Shropshire – get in touch to talk about booking a one to one session. If you live further away, it’s amazing what can be achieved with video calls! If you have decent internet or phone connection in the garden, get in touch and let’s see if we can work something out.

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