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Pruning principles question - from Permaculture standpoint

 
C Jones
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Hi there!

My local municipality offers a class on pruning / shaping young trees, together with practical experience in pruning some around the city. Seems to be a good idea, a good way to get some training for me and the city gets some labor; not to mention, dispersing knowledge is generally a good thing.

However, I have wondered, is something like this likely to be sound advice? Is there much debate or difference in pruning from a permaculture perspective vs. general mainstream practice? If I go through this program, will I need to forget half the stuff they taught? For what it's worth, the trees around town do generally look good and happy and healthy to (newbie) me. Plus the city is a bit sustainable-minded, e.g. have been composting wastewater for a number of years.

Thanks for any advice!
 
Ben Johansen
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Hey, Jonesy. If you're looking to get more familiar with tree trimming and the tools involved, then go for it. It's good to have a sense of what you're doing, so that when you do finally go and take a class on pruning paw-paws and dingleberries and whatever else, you can get with the program a lil quicker. You may even be able to make a few mistakes on John Q. Taxpayer's's dime: the best "internships" I ever had were the ones that I was paid the worst for (beans and a bed, sometimes,) but was subsequently allowed to make mistakes at (i.e.- running a hula hoe directly lover a bed of exotic dahlias, etc.) without causing a whole lot of heartache. The big difference I can think of would be this: City Hall could perhaps try and train you to "flush cut" branches, as opposed to "collar cut." That's not good. Here's a few pictures:





The trick is to minimize the amount of space that is bare: tree bark keeps out bugs, fungi, bacteria, birds, etc, and when it's not there, they get in. Some biodynamic folks I know make a pretty sweet "tree paste" out of manure and a few other bits and bobs to paint onto bare spots, and I've seen some old-timers use waters-down latex paint. I think a light layer of beeswax would be ideal, but I doubt that the city is going to have you cover the cuts at all... Ah well, nothings perfect, eh? Just do what you can, while you can. Happy pruning!
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Ben, great post sir, I see far to many trees damaged by people pruning the wrong way.
 
Patrick Mann
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I say go for it. I don't think anybody teaches flush cut anymore these days. The goals of their pruning may be different, but the important thing is to be able to observe how different trees react to certain pruning cuts. This experience will serve you when it comes time to do your own pruning.
 
John Polk
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The general wisdom today is to NOT seal the cut (assuming the cut was properly done).

A flush cut (along the trunk), or a remaining stub are sources for diseases to enter the tree.

A 'collar cut' (pruning cut) eliminates this problem.

For a quick guide to pruning, Oregon State University offers this 12 page PDF.
Collar cut.PNG
[Thumbnail for Collar cut.PNG]
 
ari gold
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Another thing to keep in mind with pruning - however you go about it - is what to do with the prunings.

Personally I do a hugel bed of sorts, breaking down the prunings with my hands when I can, tho I'll use the occasional loper. If it needs a saw, it gets cut and goes to the wood pile.

I dump the broken up prunings in a pile and dump coffee grounds which I get by the bucket from a local place. Once it gets where I want it, I'll seal it off with soil and compost and start planting in it. Or heck, maybe I'll just let it compost for a while and then spread it around. Or both

Little efficiency note: I used to prune everything and then break it down. Now I break it down while I prune. Waaaaay neater since there aren't any piles to have to get around to.

Good on ya! In my experience, you'll be surprised by how much your plants like the pruning

All the best,

Ari
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Reasons to prune a tree; To remove dead or dying branches.
To open the interior of the tree for better sunlight penetration and so better health of the tree.
To shape the tree more to the natural growth pattern of the species.
To shape the tree to a form you desire (as in the classical tree covered road or path, to be able to grow trees for food in less space than a normal orchard requires and for classical fruit trees to make harvest of fruit easier.).
To have more branches develop for more fruit production.

Note: there is only one way to correctly prune a branch and that method is amply shown in posted drawings in this thread.

It has finally become common practice to not use "pruning sealers" on fresh cuts.
This was never a good idea and it always did more harm than good to all trees.
The best sealant ever has been the tree's own sap, and bark.

In the case of fruit trees, pruned branches can be rooted or grafted or they can be dried and used to flavor meats and vegetables (smoking).
Hard wood pruned branches are great for kindling wood or fire wood if large enough. The left overs are great for growing mound fill as already mentioned in at least one post here.
Very sappy pine or other conifer branches are good "fat wood" fire starting pieces. The left overs are good for growing mound fill or if small enough for pathway mulch.
If the conifer branches are large, chipping them up is one method to use them, They can also be used for building projects or fence posts if they are of cedar, redwood, cypress.
 
Earl Mardle
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Our local tree crops guy has some general advice for pruning fruit trees that goes - take out
  • dead wood
  • damaged wood- cicada egg sites, wind breakage or disease
  • crossing wood - anything that crosses another branch or the centre of the tree
  • open out the tree till you can throw a seagull through it.
  • Stop when you reach 10%

  • As for the prunings, certainly get them away from the orchard, I also make hugels but leave the wood to start rotting first. Otherwise I do triage. If its under 12mm it goes through the chipper, 12 - 30mm it gets cut for kindling with the loppers and over 30mm stacked for the chainsaw and firewood.
     
    Andrew Schreiber
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    Howdy,

    There are many ideologies out there that say you "must" prune trees. This is far from true. As people have pointed out, there are several reasons why one might want to prune, but trees tend to grow just fine without it, and you run the risk of causing the tree to become more-or-less dependent on continual pruning in the future. This is the case with many fruit trees.

    As a rule, unless you have some specific goal in mind, there is no need to prune.

    The most common trees to prune thing to prune are small, high-production fruit trees that respond with heavier yields when having branches selectively culled at the right time. This is particularly relevant for those in small spaces who need the most productivity from any individual tree. In larger systems, I lean toward allowing the trees to take their natural shape, and not expecting high productivity on the individual level but from the whole system. That usually means that certain trees and certain species will take rest years, which is natural and good for them.
     
    Neil Layton
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    This is all good advice.

    Now, an important caveat is that I haven't tried implementing this in the orchard but I think it might be worthwhile to consider why trees respond to "pruning" in the first place. In general, this coincides with best practice for pruning in the first place. What I'm about to say also applies to coppicing and pollarding, and has implications for the cultivation of annuals in a forest garden.

    Most of us are used to habitats where the local megafauna has been wiped out. Those of us who don't fall into this category tend to try to keep it, or what's left of it, out. Now, I don't know enough about areas outside Europe to comment intelligently, but most of this will apply elsewhere.

    Until relatively recently in an evolutionary sense, trees were put under selection pressure by beavers effectively coppicing stumps (and flooding certain areas), deer and other large ungulates browsing young wood, and elephants (yes, there were elephants in the UK) generally ripping and tearing. It's not an accident that the only native British tree that does not respond to coppicing is the Scots pine - a species unpalatable to beaver. Trees would then respond to this by putting on new growth in order to maximise fruiting potential (perhaps also taking advantage of manure dropped by passing large browsing animals, by that time suitably well rotted). It is true to say that there is a best way to prune a branch (evolution isn't perfect, for a start), but the key in a permie/forest garden setting is to ask what animal you are taking the place of.

    In this sense, your job as an ecosystem manager is different from your job helping the council prune according to their aesthetic values. Sometimes the result will be the same. Sometimes it won't. Just a thought. My view, in answer to your question, is a qualified yes.
     
    John Wolfram
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    Bryant RedHawk wrote:Reasons to prune a tree; To remove dead or dying branches.
    To open the interior of the tree for better sunlight penetration and so better health of the tree.
    To shape the tree more to the natural growth pattern of the species.
    To shape the tree to a form you desire (as in the classical tree covered road or path, to be able to grow trees for food in less space than a normal orchard requires and for classical fruit trees to make harvest of fruit easier.).
    To have more branches develop for more fruit production.

    In that list I would add "To remove branches that will surely snap under the weight of a full fruit load."
     
    John Wolfram
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    Neil Layton wrote:This is all good advice. Now, an important caveat is that I haven't tried implementing this in the orchard but I think it might be worthwhile to consider why trees respond to "pruning" in the first place. In general, this coincides with best practice for pruning in the first place. What I'm about to say also applies to coppicing and pollarding, and has implications for the cultivation of annuals in a forest garden. Most of us are used to habitats where the local megafauna has been wiped out. Those of us who don't fall into this category tend to try to keep it, or what's left of it, out. Now, I don't know enough about areas outside Europe to comment intelligently, but most of this will apply elsewhere.

    You mentioned the lack of animals, but don't forget the lack of competing plant species. Our fruit trees of today evolved competing against rapid growing annuals which explains their natural tendency to grow straight up. In my orchard, if I don't mow/weedwack then the third year perennials will be shaded out by the annuals by mid-August.
     
    Chadwick Holmes
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    I don't know how permaculture this is, but the old guys always said to cut the limbs that pointed down to hell, and leave the limbs that reached up to heaven, this was in a Florida fruit grove......might be helpful might not, but that's what we were taught, and I found it not only interesting but that it also creates good trees!

    Good pruned trees that is, I would still rather see a full size tree.
     
    Neil Layton
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    Hi Jack

    In an orchard, yes, this doesn't surprise me. In a woodland garden you will also be managing the understorey to control the growth of annuals and smaller perennials. In a comparable natural habitat this would also have been done by larger animals, whether browsers or, for example, wild boar churning things up. You will also be managing planting to create a more open canopy - something closer to a coppice woodland or a Vera-type wood pasture, or a mix of the two, with the tiers found in permaculture. In this situation you shouldn't need to weedwhack.
     
    Lee Kochel
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    I didn't notice you mention if these trees of yours are fruit trees or not. But if so, then Stefan Sobkowiak's DVD "Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic" has a good section on pruning and especially training fruit trees so that you can minimize later pruning. A certain Paul Wheaton had a hand in producing it.
     
    Joshua Myrvaagnes
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    sepp holzer discusses this in his book, I think it's the one titled "permaculture," and says to leave the bottom branches on for food for voles so that they don't have to eat the upper branches or damage the trees. He contrasts this with "tidy' orchards which then require gassing the poor voles, as far as the context in which this was written. Also, he uses wild rootstock (crabapples and such) as they're stronger than overbred ones. Makes sense to me.
     
    Robert Jordan
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    I hope I haven't missed anything, but hadn't Mr Fukuoka some very specific things to say about pruning fruit trees. If memory serves he had a counter intuitive approach. I can't tell you what, because I don't have trees to learn on yet, but perhaps some student can lay hands on the book and quote from the brilliant Masanobu Fukuoka. RC
     
    Ian Mack
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    Robert Jordan wrote: If memory serves he had a counter intuitive approach.

    Did he ever! Rather than advocating for absolutely no pruning of any kind, as you might assume from knowing about the rest of his work, he took a different path after losing several acres worth of fruit trees by not pruning them at all. My understanding is that he prunes them to preserve their natural shape, as the more "unnatural" cultivars of citruses he had required. Any branch that twists around or takes on a shape that is not the natural shape for that tree, he prunes. This is all from his Philosophy of Green Farming, by the way. He might advocate something different in One-Straw Revolution or his Trees in the Desert book, as I haven't had a chance to read them yet.
     
    C Jones
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    Wow, what a great bunch of advice! Ha – my first post made the daily-ish . Thanks much to all, there's a lot to consider and to learn, as I suspected. As to the class, it sounds like I will probably be OK taking it as long as it's with a grain of salt just in case. The low-level mechanics, i.e. what shown in the drawings, I'm sure will be good to get some practice under an experienced hand. We'll see if it works out for me to go, hopefully so.

    All I've got right now is a young black walnut which the squirrels planted right next to the fence, and some sort of an ornamental plum that looks almost more like a large bush for some reason. So I'm starting small, but I figure will be handy skills to have.

    Regarding cutting limbs the pointed downward, at my old rental I had a dwarf ( or possibly dwarfed?) apple tree in the backyard, and the landlady said they ( her parents, who I'm sure qualified as old-timers) had always just cut off the suckers that pointed up every year. Although that was as a mature tree, I have no idea what was done when it was young. I have no idea if that was good or not, but it always gave lots of apples, although they were usually were worm-eaten (Which I'm learning maybe could've been helped with some companion planting and or encouraging birds?) .
     
    Mike Peters
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    Robert Jordan wrote:I hope I haven't missed anything, but hadn't Mr Fukuoka some very specific things to say about pruning fruit trees. If memory serves he had a counter intuitive approach. I can't tell you what, because I don't have trees to learn on yet, but perhaps some student can lay hands on the book and quote from the brilliant Masanobu Fukuoka. RC


    Robert, although I cannot give you a quote because a friend has my copy of The One Straw Revolution, I remember reading that he was specifically against pruning. In fact, he stressed that if trees are not pruned to begin with, they will grow into a natural, healthy shape and not need to be pruned. He stil continued to prune his trees that were pruned dependent, though.
     
    Mike Peters
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    Ian Mack wrote:This is all from his Philosophy of Green Farming, by the way. He might advocate something different in One-Straw Revolution or his Trees in the Desert book, as I haven't had a chance to read them yet.


    I just read your post, and I stand corrected! I wasn't aware that he had lost all of those trees. I guess that part of One Straw Revolution had been written prior to!
     
    Patrick Mann
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    That makes sense to me - I've seen non-pruned trees where limbs snapped due to excessive fruit. You'd want to prevent that unless you have high tolerance for ugly trees and low incidence of disease.
     
    Peter Ingot
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    I agree to some extent with both Neil Layton and Andrew Schreiber.

    Certain trees such as apples have been pruned by humans for many centuries. Even if the pruning techniques were completely misguided, we would by now have bred apple trees selected for their ability to thrive with pruning.

    Other trees, especially many which are of interest in permaculture are wild or semi wild, and in my opinion often need little or no pruning. Semi wild trees with small fruits which grow from seed are IMO unlikely to need much pruning

    I do agree with the idea that individual trees become dependent on pruning in their lifetime, so we should think carefully before starting pruning in many cases. Maybe the true permaculture approach is to breed trees which thrive without pruning. It seems to me that many fruit grower are convinced of the need for pruning and spraying, they seem to have many problems of disease and pests and solutions which are only semi-adequate. I suspect the extremely widespread use of grafting and other forms of cloning may be the reason for the disease problems of a lot of fruit. Genetic resistance to microbial diseases in particular is improved by sexual reproduction (indeed, some evolutionary geneticists speculate that sexual reproduction exists primarily for this reason: to help long lived species change rapidly enough to keep up the arms race with fast evolving short lived species, such as bacteria, viruses and mildews). Increasing air flow through branches might stop the growth of fungal diseases, but so might better genetic resistance. I have never seen the need to either prune or spray the blackberries (although cutting them back is often desirable to stop them taking over). Blackberries have a lot of genetic diversity, they are a complex of different species and hybrids of these species. I am very interested in fruits which grow from seed. Most will be small. Pippins are so called because they used to be grown from seed.

    Browsing animals go for living branches and ignore dead branches. I have experience of goats and I don't think on the whole that browsing animals do anything equivalent to pruning, although being browsed is a fact of life for most trees in the wild, and some bounce back better than others.

    I have a lot of damsons where I am, local people don't prune them, many are wild (the trees that is ). IMO even cultivated damsons are pretty similar to their wild ancestors in most cases. I didn't prune at all for the first few years and now I only prune lightly. I cut off dead and diseased branches in early summer, feed them to the goats, and then use them for dead hedging, to stop erosion and protect young trees. Larger branches I use for firewood. This has led me to speculate that maybe pruning originated with early agroforestry systems, in which trees were grown for fruit, nuts, fodder, bark, firewood etc., rather than the single functions they commonly have today.

    For the last three years I have been plagued by busybodies who insist that my damson trees need to be heavily pruned, reshaped etc. and despite my best efforts they often do it against my wishes when my back's turned. Some trees have been pruned in winter which my experience, local knowledge and textbooks say is not good. The approach is usually to prune them in the manner of apple trees, thinning out branches and opening out the crown. Some of the trees closest to my house have been repeatedly pruned in this way by different people. The last guy slapped on green timber paint onto the wounds he had made (could this be harmful to the tree?). The evidence is now pretty plain. The trees which have been pruned are now yielding considerably less than they used to and less than many trees in the area which have been growing wild for decades.

    Other trees, such as my grape vine I prune routinely and it seems to like it. Coppicing and pollarding are very good ways to get firewood. I have found pollarding to be very valuable in goat country. Pruning may be convenient for harvesting fruit in some cases. My childhood home had a very large pear tree which produced massive yields of huge cooking pears, but many of them smashed on the ground after falling from a great height. We made a lot of pear wine. Maybe I'm being nostalgic, but our unpruned apple trees seemed to yield far more than the stumpy trained dwarf trees I see in commercial orchards

    I read Fukuoka and his take seemed to be that when you start to prune a tree you interfere with its natural pattern of growth, and then you have to keep pruning. Grafted trees are all pruned at a young age. I'm fairly sceptical about Fukuoka's ideas (because I have never ever seen them work, and often seen them fail), but I think he could possibly be onto something here (although, like I said earlier, many wild trees get "pruned" by deer, goats etc. when young). He formed his ideas after killing a formerly pruned orchard when he stopped pruning the trees.

    Bob Flowerdew from BBC Gardener's question time once said that many people prune because they have too much time on their hands, and according to him, unpruned fruit trees live longer and yield more. I don't know what his source was for that.
     
    Josh van Veen
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    In the "The Permaculture Orchard : Beyond Organic" Stefan Sobkowiak talks about training and pruning trees for fruiting. His approach focuses on training the trees with minimal pruning techniques which results in trees trained in a way that future pruning is light work when compared to trees that are only pruned and not trained.

    Local city course would help to understand conventional pruning principles and techniques whether you agree and can apply them in your situation is another question.

    I did a hort course that most of the techniques and strategies I don't ever use however it was valuable for helping improve my confidence (I did actually know what I was talking about before the course) and ability to improve my own techniques and strategies with that confidence.

     
    Tom Nicholson
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    What is the "natural form" of a highly bred cultivar grafted onto a rootstock of a different species?! Fukuoka spent years trying to arrive at an answer and still doesn't seem sure in "The Natural Way of Farming". He tries for a main central riser, though with a grafted and pruned sapling this is not always easy. He also wants the branches to spiral out like a spiral staircase (Fibonacci style) which also means you can climb up the spiral staircase to pick high fruit (presumably, if they're not out on a thin limb).
    Sepp Holtzer says leave the lower branches also so that browsers have something to nibble instead of nibbling the bark.
    Over the week end I was pruning citrus trees. Though I'm not experienced, it's obvious to see that if citrus trees have been pruned so that the main branches are splayed out with no central riser then these branches send vertical new growth into the interior causing a tangled mess.
    On the other hand the guava trees do just fine left alone.
     
    Bryant RedHawk
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    As far as I have been able to find out tree pruning has been done for several hundred years, prior to that there isn't much mention of trimming a tree to any shape.
    Pruning became a common practice around the same time formal gardens were coming into fashion with the royals as a way to show off their importance and financial status.
    The French developed the methods of Espalier and pollarding specifically for fruit trees, these allowed for better crops of apples in the case of pollarding and they allowed the plum and pear trees to be grown along fence lines and walls in the case of the Espalier.

    Grapes have been pruned yearly since the first grapes were grown for wine.

    While pruning can be done for the above reasons, unless you are wanting to recreate the look, there really isn't a good reason to prune severely any tree.
    Dead wood saps energy from a living tree, because of this it is a good practice to prune it out.
    I have never pruned any tree so that it didn't have a central trunk, to open a tree that way, not only requires yearly pruning but it also weakens the tree and leaves it open to disaster.

    I prune for tree health, and only for tree health. This means I take out dead wood and I remove branches that rub against another branch.
    The only other pruning I do is on newly bought trees. Nurseries tend to sell trees with far to many branches growing in the interior of the tree. This causes lots of crossing branches and usually there are several branches with weak growth points.
    Since a branch with a weak trunk or older branch joint will eventually break and thus damage the tree, it is best to remove them when you plant the new tree.

    Before I prune any tree, I first bend the branches out away from the main trunk.
    This shows the growth pattern of the branches and lets you find the ones that have weak joints, as well as those that will rub older or better connected branches.
    Once I have the branches gently bent and staked out temporarily I can determine which ones must go for the health of the tree.
    If you do this type of initial pruning, you will find that you rarely need to do anything more than dead wood and crossing branch removal from that point on.
    By keeping the central trunk, you ensure that your tree has the best chance of becoming strong and living the full length of life that the species should.
    You will also find that the branches will hold the optimum quantity of fruit, dropping only the number needed to produce good quality fruit.
    For any tree, it is all about survival and reproducing. If the tree can't, for any reason, reproduce then it will drop most if not all of its seed, be it fruit or nut.

    Wild trees are different than hybrids most people want to grow.
    But even the hybrid has the genetic makeup to survive and reproduce.
    How well it does so is not so dependent on the grower, unless it wouldn't be alive except for the grower (grafted trees for example).

    Pruning should always be done only for the benefit of the tree. What we want it to look like really isn't part of the tree's makeup and so, while we can shape trees to what ever shapes we want, it isn't the design of nature.
    Fruit and nut trees really don't need the help of a human, but if the human nurtures the tree in the manner of nature's design, they will be rewarded with a bounty to harvest and put on the table for foot.
     
    John Wolfram
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    Bryant RedHawk wrote:As far as I have been able to find out tree pruning has been done for several hundred years, prior to that there isn't much mention of trimming a tree to any shape.
    Pruning became a common practice around the same time formal gardens were coming into fashion with the royals as a way to show off their importance and financial status.
    The French developed the methods of Espalier and pollarding specifically for fruit trees, these allowed for better crops of apples in the case of pollarding and they allowed the plum and pear trees to be grown along fence lines and walls in the case of the Espalier.


    Pruning trees for fruit production has been around for at least a few thousand years. To quote the Bible (John 15:2):
    Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.

     
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