Once upon a time not so long ago, a great notion came to pass upon our culture, passed down by those most comfortable in their ephemeral notions of security and material wealth to the dregs of society, by way of the cultural trickle-down effect, that less is more.
Moby was among the most notable (for me and arguably my cultural milieu anyway) of those with cultural sway and hefty financial savings to tout this minimalist lifestyle, easily longed for but surprisingly hard to adapt to without means. Minimalist culture has since become a powerful force for self parody as Dwell magazine, tiny homes, and perhaps the world’s leading ambassador for the self-parody movement, Moby himself (whom I sincerely love dearly), become jokes of themselves many layers over.
But as Marie Kondo has proven, minimalism can have a place in the life of the everyday workaday mundane trust fund-free human lifestyle, and this truth that we all perhaps ought to let earnestly trickle into our lives can be mirrored through the lives of our plants.
As a garden columnist, I refuse to adhere to the notion of cutting back as a holistic approach to all aspects of one’s life and will adamantly defend and justify the fact that it has taken me four paragraphs to get to the core of this piece, as it all brings me joy, every word of it. But alas, dying leaves and erratically-growing limbs bring no joy to your trees, and it’s time you learned that it is OK, maybe even essential, to prune your trees back forcefully every year, especially your food-bearing trees, if you want them to live long, healthy, happy lives. Less is in fact more and, even better, less provides more—for you, in terms of fruit. As in you’ll get more fruit from your tree if you give your tree less tree.
Timing is key when it comes to pruning your trees. Down south, October through January is the best time to get to snipping. That is a broad window, but it’s about to get tinier and you’re going to have to use your powers of attention and observation in order to shrink your trees properly. If you are trimming a fruit-bearing tree, wait until all the fruit has been picked or fallen off to prune, as this is a good indicator the tree is cyclically done putting energy into external growth for the year. And also, you want that fruit for you, yes? If it is not a fruit-bearing tree, you’ll know it’s ready for a pruning once its leaves start falling off—or, if it’s not the sort of tree that loses leaves, once it seems to have stopped producing new ones.
The practicality of pruning at this juncture in a tree’s life is multifold, but primarily, you are waiting for a time when the tree is producing less energy because it has less leaves and there is less energy from the sun to harvest by said leaves, so you’re not stealing a plant’s means of production during its peak producing seasons. At the same time, one of the main reasons to prune in general is to mitigate where a tree is sending the energy it does have. By pruning when it is creating less energy anyway, you are helping it to store energy in the roots and trunk, and to keep the healthy and strong limbs healthy without throwing out limited resources to diseased or awkward limbs.
So, what to cut? Well, I wanted to make this whole piece a subversive critical discourse around minimalist culture but had to cut that notion out to make space for actual practical gardening advice. But you and your tree, you should start by cutting at the base. Limbs that are touching the ground or that are at risk of touching the ground once they start producing new growth and fruit next season should be removed, as tree bits touching the ground are peak vectors for fungus and disease to reach your tree and do irreparable harm. If you’re feeling fancy and your tree is large enough, there is no particular harm or shame in making a topiary of your tree by getting rid of all the branches well up the trunk. It’s an aesthetic choice more than a practical one, but so too is the life of the minimalist.
Speaking of trunks, many fruit trees will develop multiple trunks, especially if they are young or haven’t been pruned for many years. Generally, this is something you ought to discourage. Over time it will make for trouble, largely on account of gravity and physics. Pick your straightest trunk and do away with the others. Be careful when doing this that your tree is not a grafted tree; and if it is, be very careful not to cut the graft off, or you will end up with a fruitless and wild tree for the rest of your days. Citrus trees are always going to be grafted, so just be aware. The grafting scar will usually be about a foot up from the base of your tree. Anything growing below that is bad news all the way.
Equally removable to extra trunks and low-growing limbs are suckers, which are young limbs growing near the base of the tree. These are pretty much covered as things you should cut by my prior advice, but some amateur arborist nerd would write me off as a talentless hack if I didn’t mention suckers somewhere in this piece. Back off, nerd.
Next you’ll want to trim any limbs that are growing downwards towards the ground as opposed to upwards, towards the sky. Limbs that grow at 90 degree angles are a bit more in limbo as regards the necessity of their removal, but I lean towards getting rid of those as well. Once you’ve gotten rid of the ground pointers, start snipping any dead or sick bits of tree. If your tree is an evergreen (if it does not drop its leaves), look at the condition of your leaves to determine who’s got to go on account of illness. If it has already dropped its leaves, knowing what limbs are properly dead can be a little trickier. If a limb is hard and stick-like and snaps easily, it is dead.
The snipping is far from over. Any branches that are rubbing on other branches have also got to go. Use your discretion here, and cut the dumber of the two branches anywhere two branches are rubbing. Now, if you can throw a cat through the spaces between your branches, you are good to go. If you cannot, keep cutting off branches until you can. Once you have cat-sized holes, do not throw a cat through the holes. If your tree is getting too tall for your liking though, you are allowed to cut the top of it off. This practice is known as topping. You can giggle about it but alas I have no sexy metaphors here. Many arborists are against this practice as it can make for awkwardly-shaped, top-heavy trees based on the new growth that topping encourages. However, if your tree is short enough that you can top it with a six foot ladder or less, you need not be concerned.
Finally, a note on the cuts themselves. It’s important to get clean cuts using pruners, loppers, or a saw; choose your tool in relation to the size of your limbs. Messy cuts are like sloppy wounds on humans: easily infected and hard to heal. Also, always make your cuts very close to the base of your tree, but do not cut flush with the tree, as this leaves huge open wounds in its own right.
Maximize your yields with minimal effort. Less is the new more. Minimize your material rotundness for maximum abundance. Acquire little, desire little. That which you hold, holds you. Let go of your branches so that you may branch out, flourish, and fruit. We are all made of stars. From the bottom to the top, may your fruit never drop. As Moby has been known to say, “So this is goodbye? This is goodbye.”
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illustrations Rachel Speck