Backyard orchards have seen a rebirth along with vegetable gardening. Apples, peaches, pears and other fruit tree sales have increased. There is a renewed interest in the small fruits, including strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.
Growing fruit in the Kansas City area can be challenging. Fruit plantings require care throughout the season for their entire life. If proper care is not given, the tree and berry plants become overgrown, and disease and insect problems can increase. They decline, leading to no production or death of the plants.
Late winter is the best time to start caring for your fruit orchard. Pruning is required yearly on all fruit trees and small fruits. Pruning is best done prior to the plants breaking dormancy.
Pruning removes excess wood from the trees, allowing sunlight to penetrate into the plant and bathing the developing fruit in sunlight. Sunlight helps develop the size and flavor of the fruit. Small fruits like blackberries and raspberries are sometimes full of deadwood because of their fruiting habit. Strawberry plantings are seldom thinned by home gardeners, which leads to overcrowding, decline and little fruit.
Pruning of fruit trees should be done yearly. The lack of pruning results in an overgrown tree, leading to poor fruit production. Start by removing any dead, broken, crossing or branches growing toward the center of the tree. This step alone will improve the health and allow the sunlight to penetrate inside. Do not prune more than one-third of the live wood from a tree in any one year. Pruning heavier can stress the plant, causing it to die or produce sucker growth that must be removed later.
The next pruning cuts open up the tree for more light by removing small, competing branches in the tree. Learning to prune takes a little practice. There are many reference guides online to help teach and illustrate the art of pruning. Each tree species has slightly different requirements for best growth.
Bramble, raspberry and blackberry pruning should start by removing all the old fruiting canes that have died. During the winter months, this might be the extent of pruning. The live canes will have set flower buds to produce this year’s crop. Much of their pruning for improved yields is done during the growing season.
Strawberries emerge from dormancy and flower to produce the berries for a mid- to late-spring harvest. Strawberry beds should be renovated after fruiting to help renew the bed for the following year. Unfortunately, strawberry plantings are short lived, lasting maybe less than five years. At that point, it is best to replant with healthy new plants.
Take advantage of warm winter days and be brave and start the pruning process. You will only learn by doing, and putting it off will only hurt your investment. The more overgrown the trees and plantings become, the more difficult it will be to tackle the process. Proper pruning is one of the best ways to help ensure you can enjoy the fruits of labor.
Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. To get your gardening questions answered on The Star’s KC Gardens blog by university extension experts, go to KCGardens.KansasCity.com.