Pruning Wildlife Fruit Trees

Pruning Wildlife Fruit Trees

As we cruise into the late winter months while enjoying the warmth of our homes, we sometimes forget that whitetail management is a year-long endeavor. One of those important chores that may get overlooked is properly pruning any planted or naturally growing fruit trees on our property. Fruit trees can provide a unique element to your overall management plan and often turn into gold mines for early season stand placement. The key to strong fruit productiong for deer is proper pruning. 

The time to start properly shaping your fruit trees, ideally, is right at planting. Leaving trees until they become overgrown and out of control can create a pruning nightmare. The day you plant your pear, apple, plum, or any other fruit tree is the day you should begin to encourage its future shape. For established trees, it’s best to prune during the late dormant season, just prior to spring growth. Pruning should never be done in late summer or early fall unless you are just removing dead or damaged wood.

Purchased fruit trees usually come as either bareroot, container grown, or possibly bagged and burlapped. Any small, one-year-old sapling should be headed back by removing about 8 to 10 inches of the main stem. This will encourage the release of a chemical called auxin which helps to trigger new branching. It’s very likely that a small fruit-tree sapling will not have a substantial branching pattern at this point. It’s best to go ahead and remove all minor limbs that you see and just head it back. What you are left with looks a little bit like a fishing pole. But this allows you, in the second and third years, to select the branches you want to keep and remove the others as the tree begins to grow.

The general form that we want to create with fruit trees depends on what varieties we’re talking about.

Apples and pears do best when allowed to develop a central leader. That is, allow one main, central shoot to grow taller than all the rest, helping the tree to take on a conical or “Christmas tree” shape. Where co-dominant (competing) leaders exist, either remove one of them or shorten one of them significantly to allow the other to develop into the central leader.

As for branches emerging from the central leader, try to select and prune to allow equal space between alternating branches. Ideally, your branch structure should mimic a spiraling staircase with the branches being the steps. As the plant matures, the lower branches should be longer than the top branches, which thus gives it the Christmas-tree form.

Each season, remove any new shoots that cross over each other and are rubbing, as well as dead wood or newly formed co-dominant leaders. Once pears and apples begin to mature and bear, you have the option of thinning some of the fruit to allow the remaining mast to get larger. This is almost always done in commercial orchards, but is not really necessary for wildlife plantings. If you don’t thin the fruit, you’ll wind up with an abundance of smaller fruit, but it will still be very attractive to wildlife.

Pruning to control fireblight bacteria on apple and pear trees is another issue, and QDMA has produced a video with guidance on controlling fireblight.

While peaches are seldom planted to attract wildlife, plums are sometimes added to the mix. Peaches, plums and even nectarines all do best when pruned in an open, bowl-shaped form. This is the opposite of the way you pruned your pears and apples. Now we actually remove the central leader and allow four to five horizontal branches to grow out from the main trunk. By doing this we allow more air and sunlight to penetrate into the limbs and tops of these problematic trees that might otherwise struggle with disease. As with apples and pears, each year remove new shoots that cross each other or crowd other branches.

Purchased fruit trees are almost always grafted, which means the root system and the top part of the tree are actually two different cultivars. On occasion, the root stock may try to exhibit dominance and begin to shoot new trunks from the root system. When this occurs, you get a less desirable fruiting tree competing with your more desirable grafted top. Root-stock shoots, or suckers as they’re often called, should be eliminated by pruning them back to the ground.

Whenever you are pruning, use a sharp pair of by-pass pruning shears (a blade on both cutting edges) rather than anvil-type shears, where a single blade pushes against a flat surface. Anvil-type shears tend to crush the stem being cut. For heading cuts, make the cut just above a bud rather than in the center of two buds. For limbs too large to cut with hand-held shears, use a sharp handsaw, and when you are removing entire limbs, make the cut flush with the surface of the trunk.

Remember that not all fruit trees are perfect flowered or self-fertile. This means that they may require a pollinating variety close by. In general, apples, pears, muscadines and blueberries need to have a compatible pollinating variety within a few hundred yards for good fruit set. Peaches, plums and nectarines have complete flower structures, which means you only need one to produce fruit.

While it’s tempting to lie around and daydream about fishing and turkey hunting, don’t forget to get out in the woods and give your fruit trees a much-needed haircut. With any luck, the next time you see a deer eating one of your apples or pears, you can put that deer in the freezer!

Did you know QDMA staff served on an advisory panel to help New York state incorporate recommended deer habitat and forest management practices into their statewide deer management model? This is just one example of how QDMA works on behalf of our members to improve deer management across North America. Help ensure the future of white-tailed deer, wildlife habitat and our hunting heritage by joining QDMA today!

by Bob Westerfield
on March 1, 2013