The patient is finally fully asleep, and it is time to start amputating. Hand me my pruners.
It is only during these cold January and February months that fruit trees and muscadine grape vines are fully dormant, and it’s time to cut away the parts they would be better off without.
Most fruit trees come from the nursery pruned for their first season. If not, the main stem needs to be cut at about 18 to 24 inches high. This keeps it from becoming one long stem and encourages it to branch out. When cutting a branch shorter, pay attention to the nodes. Nodes are the small bumps where leaves and branches come out. Leave the end node pointing where you want the next branch to emerge. Never cut through a node, but cutting just above one is fine and often preferable.
When pruning older fruit trees, the first priority is cutting off rotted and damaged branches. Then go after branches that are trying to push against other branches. The ones growing across the middle of the tree should also be evicted. Ideally, the tree should be open in the middle to allow air and sunlight to reach the whole tree. It could be loosely described as looking like an arm coming out of the ground, with an open hand, palm up, and fingers slightly spread.
Where branches split into V shapes, cut the weaker ones to help the other ones grow stronger. With grafted trees, all growth coming from below the graft line should be destroyed as best you can without hurting the trunk. The graft line can be easily identified on most trees by the little bump not far from the base. Anything that grows below that bump comes from the root stock and would not be a quality fruit-bearing plant. The root stock is for making good roots, what is grafted above that is for fruit. You don’t want non-fruiting growth crowding out and stealing nutrition from your fruit-bearing branches. If you rip them off, they probably won’t grow back, but you risk damaging the bark. It’s safer to cut them as close to the tree as you can.
This general pruning method is good for most fruit trees, including apricots, peaches, plums and nectarines. Trees with heavier fruit, like pears and apples, should be open in the middle as well, but it’s also good to focus on getting thicker branches. Cutting the terminal bud off main branches and stems can slow growth and result in larger, stronger branches. The terminal bud is the last bud at the tip of the branch or stem. With pears, make sure to cut away and burn anything that might have fire blight. A branch with fire blight has lots of droopy black dying leaves and bark. Burning those branches can help stop it from spreading.
It’s helpful to remove water sprouts. Those are fast growing small branches that often come up from the main branches and look like young trees. They usually produce little to no fruit and are weaker, making them more likely to contract and spread diseases. Try to make sure to leave fruiting spurs. These often look like wrinkled old wood and not like the vigorous, but undesirable water sprouts.
When starting muscadine grape vines, gardeners usually let the main vine grow about three feet up a pole and trim away all extending vines except two. The chosen two are made to grow in opposite directions along thick wires. Old telephone wires have been successfully used, but any strong, long-lasting wire will work.
It is mostly new growth that will produce muscadines, so every winter most of the previous season’s growth should be cut away to force it to make new growth and to prevent it from becoming a tangled mess of wild vines. After a few years, that can mean a lot of twigs to cut. If you have kids wanting to play barber, you can give them some pruners and supervise while letting them give the vines a “haircut.” It can be tedious trying to cut back all the twigs that grew that year, but at least they are thin and easy for little hands to cut with little hand pruners. And maybe it will keep them from wanting to cut each other’s hair instead.
By Dori Herndon