Your fruit hedge may have several different elements - fruit trees, fruiting shrubs, fruiting canes and fruiting climbers, that will all need different pruning regimes to achieve maximum fruit production.
Pruning fruit trees
- People are often concerned about pruning fruit trees as it can appear to be a difficult task, requiring specialist skills. Fortunately fruit trees are fairly resilient and can usually survive even poor pruning attempts. However leaving a tree without any pruning will often result in a loss of fruit production as pruning is usually needed to:
- establish a shape that is suitable for the space available;
- encourage fruit bud formation and;
- allow sunlight and air into the centre of a tree, as this allows the tree to produce better quality fruit in size, flavour and appearance.
- Each fruit variety reacts differently to pruning, so for instance:
- Apples and pears can be pruned hard and at any time
- Apricots, bullace, cherry, damson, gage and plum should only be pruned lightly during the summer
- Medlars and quince can be pruned at any time, but only lightly
- Walnuts should ideally not be pruned at all
- Hazel can be coppiced on a 5 to 7 year cycle.
The initial pruning of a young fruit tree is perhaps the most important, because this establishes the trees shape. In a fruit hedge, the aim should be to produce a tree with a clean stem, long enough to put the fruit towards the top of the hedge, with a balanced shape to the canopy. This balanced framework is important to be able to support the fruit when it develops.
To achieve the balanced shape, during the first three years clean off all the lower branches (feathers) up to 1.5 metres, whilst allowing the main leader to grow on. Once the leader has reached a height of over 2 meters, prune it back to the 2 meter point. This will encourage growth from the side branches in the top half meter giving the tree a spreading shape and ensuring that the fruit should be within reach of most foragers.
Recognising fruit buds/ leaf buds
Fruit trees produce two types of buds and being able to recognise fruit producing buds and wood producing buds will help with pruning.
Wood buds produce leaves but no flowers.
Fruit buds produce flowers and then fruit.
The fruit buds develop during the late summer/early autumn and by mid winter, a downy bud with a rounder shape will have formed which carries next years flowers. During the summer, fruit buds are often surrounded by a cluster of leaves. During winter growth buds (buds carrying leaves but no flowers) are easy to distinguish from fruit buds by being slender, pointed buds borne in a leaf axil. These buds are usually much smaller and more insignificant than fruit buds.
Pruning for fruit
Once the basic shape has begun to develop, the general rule of thumb is that pruning ‘little and often’ is a better strategy than an ‘occasional heavy prune’. This is because pruning hard in one year, can encourage vigorous and unfruitful growth. As fruit production usually occurs on the side shoots (except for tip bearing fruit like medlars and some apples), the aim of a light prune is to encourage fruit bud production, by reducing the development of wood. Put simply, cutting the end off a shoot encourages the tree to produce side shoots (called spurs). These spurs are where the tree will produce fruit.
Pruning hedge shrubs
If the backbone of your hedge is made up of woody shrubs like blackthorn, mirabelle and hawthorn, these will need to be cut back in the autumn or winter when the hedge is dormant and when there is no risk of disturbing wildlife. To maximise fruit production cut the hedge back on a 2 to 4 year cycle.
Pruning fruit bushes, canes and climbers
These will all require slightly different pruning to maximise their fruit production and we have covered this in the sections - summer and winter tasks.