As the buds start to shake off their patience and awaken Spring, we are presented with arguably our final opportunity to get some of our most treasured plants into shape for the year.
At Manea School of Gardening, we’ve been enjoying getting to grips with pruning a range of deciduous plants such as roses, apple trees and willows.
With the first of two batches of exams completed, we are maximising the long days to relish some of the practical elements of the course.
Roses and apples are very closely related – both are in the Rosaceae family – but their pruning treatments are slightly different. However, both can receive a good prune now as the risk of harsh frost drops and the plants’ meristem growing cells kick into life.
Roses tend to get congested in the centre of the plant, so a good starting point is taking away crossing branches or any showing signs of damage.
Older, more lethargic growth can be pruned away where a younger stem is competing – it is better to dive into the crown of the plant and have a good look at where the branches are coming from, rather than tinkering with the top first.
Having established the remaining leading stems, these can be pruned back to an outward facing bud, taking newer weaker stems back harder to ensure a strong framework for them to support new growth this year.
With apple trees, initially the process is similar. By starting in the crown of the plant and removing dead, rubbing or damaged branches you will find the structure opens up.
Before you go pruning your tree to within an inch of its life, remember to select strong leading branches, which may hardly need pruning at all. As with the roses, the idea is to select three to four main supporting branches, providing an open framework.
This allows greater airflow which can prevent a build-up of fungal infections and give the eventual fruits a chance to ripen more easily. To improve yield, look for the fruiting spurs; these large chubby buds form in clusters and are generally near the ends of the lateral branches.
This means branches which are slightly thinner than a pencil are often best pruned hard, especially to a downward facing bud, which encourages more fruiting spurs. A long thin branch will only likely form spurs at the very tip, where flowers and fruits are more exposed to wind damage.
However, pruning is a very personal routine. I have pointed out some general guidance, but each scenario is different and hinges on what shape you are trying to achieve. Pruning is essentially your way of manipulating a plant into a desired shape and relieving its stress and congestion.
If you’ve got roses or apples, now is the prime time for pruning in preparation for the summer, but if you’re looking at an evergreen plant, I would hold back.
Just a little longer and the plant will be producing enough energy to withstand a good prune; April-August is usually the optimum time for pruning evergreens. On these cold days, it certainly warms a gardener’s heart to think about preparing a crop of apples or flush of blooms for summer…
- Peter is an apprentice at Manea School of Gardening (RHS Approved Centre)