Peaches and plums and pruning
November 15, 2011 10:51 AM   Subscribe

Fruit tree planting question: Peach and plum trees are typically sold bare root, for planting in the winter, and most online planting guides deal with bare root trees. I wanted to get my trees in the ground before winter to give the roots some time to grow (Austin, Texas here), so I bought containerized plum and peach trees (that is, with a root ball and leaves), and I have planted the plum trees already. I am worried that I messed it up.

Almost all planting guides for stone fruit say to prune newly planted trees down to knee-level or so and trim off all branches, so that you basically have a stick. The two plum trees were more developed than bare root trees (they were maybe 2 years old and six feet tall or so), so I cut them both about three to four feet high so as to preserve 2-3 good lateral branches on each. The lateral branches were cut so that only 3 or so buds remained. So I basically have two sticks now. I'm going to wrap them in tree wrap to prevent sun scald.

My question: I'm worried that I did something wrong given that the plants weren't already dormant. Should I should left the leaves and tree intact and then done the pruning after the trees went dormant? Have I hurt my trees? I haven't planted the peach tree yet -- should I plant the peach tree intact and let it go dormant first before I prune? Basically, when you plant a containerized plum or peach tree, do you prune for shape at the time of planting, or do you wait?
posted by seventyfour to Home & Garden (5 answers total)
Best answer: I know planting guides are full of dire warnings, but truthfully, trees (and shrubs) are pretty forgiving in terms of time of year you prune. You can prune them now or later. If you don't like how they look come spring, you can fuss with them then, or let them grow in a couple years and then fuss with them. They will keep growing and it's not like you get to quit pruning if you want them to stay healthy. (We learned in my Master Gardener class that there was a woman who did a series of experiments at Ohio State in the 90s, I believe, who tested all the tree-trimming advice and did all the things you're not supposed to do and are supposed to do and crazy things that nobody's ever done, and she basically concluded that most tree-trimming advice is little more than folklore.)

We don't use tree wrap up here so I don't know about that, but do put a little barrel of chicken wire around your new tree's truck, 3-4 inches out, because critters love to sharpen their teeth on baby trees. (Also, mulch to keep the moisture in, but keep the mulch a couple inches from the trunk so mice don't nest in the mulch right against the trunk and, again, sharpen their little teeth on your little tree.)

If you are growing these for an actual orchard, not just for prettiness and some fruit in your yard, then you probably need to talk to an orchardist, since there ARE proper ways to prune so the trees will bear optimal fruit and the branches will carry enough weight to carry all that fruit without snapping. But unless you're growing for market, where every bushel counts, I wouldn't worry about it too much.

(As you probably know, it takes several years for fruit trees to bear in any significant quantity. You'll have years to contemplate the shape of the branches before the fruit does anything interesting.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:23 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you did just fine! That doesn't sound like definite tree-ending action to me at all. Young stone fruit trees get pruned in preparation for the grafting process in a way that's even more radical than what you did, so I'd be surprised if yours didn't make it. If you want some personal reassurance, your county extension can surely connect you with someone with special stone fruit expertise. And if you don't already know about the Dave Wilson nursery backyard orchard culture guide, here you go!
posted by jocelmeow at 2:55 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your trees will be fine, but in your place I would leave the peach alone until spring. The more leaves on a plant, the more energy they absorb when they drop the leaves, and this is a good thing for young trees that will be growing new roots this winter.

There's nothing wrong with pruning fruit trees that aren't dormant (in California, we prune apricot trees by August to prevent rain from spreading Eutypa spores to unhealed pruning cuts), you just need to have a reason for pruning when and how you do. Spring pruning is done to direct energy stored when dormant; summer pruning is good to control growth, especially unwanted growth like water sprouts. Fall pruning can be tricky, because of early frosts or weird warm spells that encourage growth right after pruning. Pruning cuts make plants more vulnerable to cold winter damage as well. If you wait until sap is running you help pruning cuts flush out pathogens. So talk to your local ag extension, they will have more particular advice for your area. And then think about what you want these trees to do: I like fruit trees pruned to be within easy reach for maintenance and harvest. jocelmeows last link is a good one for the backyard orchardist.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:47 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what I said above made complete sense: trees absorb nutrients from plant leaves before they drop them- that's why they change color in fall. The more leaves on the tree when this happens, the more energy for the plant in spring. For now this is a good thing, though at some point you may want fruit trees to have a little less energy if they are putting out too much unwanted growth, and that's one of the reasons for early summer pruning. Definitely check with your local ag ex for the best times in your area.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:54 PM on November 15, 2011

I have plums and they grow like weeds. Your trees are going to rebound just fine. I'm in Nebraska and my trees easily grow 3 feet a year. Production is hit and miss -- we had a fantastic crop last year -- their third year in the ground -- but nothing this year.
posted by Ostara at 7:01 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

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