How to prune now for an abundance of grapes and fruits

ST. GEORGE — There’s never been a better time to prune fruit trees, grapes and flowering plants using these simple “how-to” steps from a St. George arborist.  Preparations now will keep plants healthy and strong, ensuring a generous yield in the months to come.

For many, fruit trees may offer a better return on effort than anything else in the garden, and deciduous fruit trees need pruning if they are to remain healthy and produce good crops. To ensure optimal health and yield for trees and other flowering plants the time to prune is during the dormant season, which is now.

Fruit tree pruning

Pruning has three primary functions: tree health, shaping and fruit production.

Peach blossom | Wikipedia, St. George News
Peach blossom | Wikimedia, St. George News

One of the most important steps in the pruning process starts beforehand, Mark Hodges, an arborist and owner of Arbor Tech, said. This practice will reduce cross-contamination and minimize disease and bacteria, some of which can be deadly and require disinfecting.

Before any tool or pruning device touches the tree or plant it needs to be disinfected, which can be done very simply by spraying Lysol or other disinfecting spray directly onto the tools or material to rid them of any bacteria or fungi that could infect the tree during the pruning process.

A bleach solution can also be used, the arborist said, by mixing 1 part bleach to 10 parts water, and then pouring it into a spray bottle.

After disinfecting all pruning tools, start by removing any weak, broken, diseased or unproductive branches, including any that are growing directly upward or downward. Also remove the suckers, which are vertical shoots growing around the base of the tree that don’t bear fruit.

“It is better to cut less than more though, because trimming a majority of the tree down can actually reduce the amount of fruit it yields because new growth is removed,” Hodges said, “which is where fruit forms.”

The pruning process includes using ‘tipping cuts’ which consists of making smaller cuts to the tree, or cutting a smaller portion of the growth by removing just enough to allow that particular branch to sustain the weight of the fruit that will grow. Otherwise, the weight of the fruit can cause the branch to break, which can ruin the fruit, and worse, cause damage to the tree.

Ripe plums on the green branches, photo by Maryna Laroshenko | Getty Images, St. George News
Ripe plums on the green branches, date and location not specified | Photo by Maryna Laroshenko, Getty Images; St. George News

Pruning a young tree also helps to control the shape of the tree, and creates a strong, balanced structure of scaffold branches because unwanted branches are removed yearly, Hodges said, which also helps to avoid large cuts in later years.

‘Open center’ pruning system

For pruning stone fruit trees, which include peach, plum, nectarine, apricot and cherry, using an ‘open center’ pruning system allows light to penetrate the leaves and branches, in addition to allowing air circulation around and within the tree. Both are important elements in reducing the development of brown rot on the fruit, in addition to generating a higher yield of fruit that is also larger in size.

This pruning method provides ample spacing and sun exposure to the primary and secondary scaffold branches, Hodges said, which promotes vigorous growth and encourages high yields at harvest.

“All branches in the center are pruned completely back to the bud while leaving the center open to four main leaders,” he said, “which opens the tree up by removing any cross branches and allows sunlight to hit as many blossoms as possible.”

More blossoms mean more fruit.

Watch Hodges prune a fruit tree in the video top of this report.

Pruning grapes

It is important to prune grape vines in winter while they are fully dormant for two reasons: First, it’s easier to see the structure of the plant without all of the leaves, but secondly and more importantly, the potential for disease and infection is minimized if the cuts are made during the plant’s dormancy.

Stock photo, St. George News
Stock photo | St. George News

The primary goal of pruning is to maximize the amount of 1-year-old wood on each grapevine without encouraging the plant to produce so many grape clusters that it lacks the energy and nutrients to fully ripen them.

If the vine grows to a mass of primarily older wood with very little new wood each year, then the dense growth reduces air circulation and encourages disease.

Proper pruning involves removing approximately 70 percent of the previous year’s growth each winter.

The second purpose for pruning grapes is to inspire the vines to grow on a structure that makes harvesting easier, and to conform the vines to the shape of the trellis or structure they are growing on.

Proper pruning also ensures well-formed grape clusters at harvest time.

The first step is to disinfect all pruning equipment before starting and after working on each vine.

The general rule for pruning grapes is to find a vine or runner that is growing, place it on the trellis, wire or fence, Hodges said, and then prune back everything else by making the cut three buds up from the runner.

Remove any shoots that grow from the main trunk or that sprout from the roots. Continue the process of training new shoots along the trellis supports over the coming years.

After pruning is complete, Hodges said, all leaves and cuttings should be removed from the area and disposed of right away since they may contain a concentrated amount of bacteria – bacteria can reinfect vines and trees that have just been treated.

“The leaves need to be removed right away, because pruning is done before spring, which is a bad time for bacteria,” Hodges said, “and is made worse by leaving a large source of the bacteria near the plants themselves.”

To water or not to water

Water drop | Wikipedia Commons, St. George News
Water drop | Wikimedia Commons, St. George News

The No. 1 problem Hodges said he sees with many growers stems from overwatering.

Overwatering causes nutrient deficiencies that are made visible by yellowing leaves.

Hodges recommends a deep soak once or twice a week in most cases rather than a 10-minute daily watering, based upon the following temperatures:

  • Below 60 degrees, no watering is required.  Plants do not move water unless they get over 60 degrees.
  • Consistent temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees allow for once a week watering.
  • Consistent temperatures of 80 to 90 degrees necessitate twice weekly deeper watering.
  • Temperatures rising higher demand closer attention, and if the leaves appear wilted then watering is needed.

“Dig down 6 inches into the dirt, see whether it is moist or dry,” Hodges said, adding, “if it is moist, it’s too early to water because trees and shrubs need a period of drying out to get oxygen to the root systems.”

Growing fruit trees and grapes provide numerous benefits, including a steady supply of fresh food, cleaner air and shade during blistering heat.

Fruit trees also grow well in suburban settings, mark the changing of the seasons and can even help people connect with each other during the growing season.

About Mark Hodges

Hodges won an entrepreneurial contest at in his youth at Dixie High School and was awarded $3,000 for running his own professional tree service. That tree service is ongoing today. As his business developed, he went on to work for the City of St. George as the City Forester, obtained his degree in arboriculture, the study of trees, from Dixie College. He continued his personal career and expertise obtaining the title of master gardener, receiving his UNLA certification, or “certified nursery man,” as he calls it. He has taught classes and seminars on plants and served on the Shade Tree Board for the City of St. George.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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  • Kathryn January 8, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    How do I get rid of the small leaf eating worms on my grapes?

  • Henry January 8, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    Thank you for a very timely and informative article. I was unaware of the importance of disinfecting the pruning equipment prior to use.

  • .... January 9, 2017 at 8:01 am

    If you would of used the term fruits and nuts in CA you would of been called a bigot !

    • Real Life January 9, 2017 at 10:54 am

      Hilarious! That’s what you can do, a comedian! Of course! Oh wait, that counts as a job, and you don’t want one of those. Oh well.

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