A GROWING CONCERN: Get to the the root of pruning problems

VALENTINES DAY IS here and gone, and the too-good weather just keeps rolling onto the North Olympic Peninsula.

This means that everyone has been busy biking, walking, hiking, using the kayaks or boats.

It also means your plants are beginning to stir.

Look around the yard and see all the new weeds, swelling buds, emerging bulbs and new shoots.

Again, it is way too early for many chores, especially any that would cause the plants to open their eyes. For now, limit yourself to chores like mulching, covering over mid- and late-blooming bulb sprouts, such as daffodils and tulips, and developing compost piles.

Now is also the best time to do heavy construction jobs. Since I know many of you are chomping on the pruners, let’s return to the mail bag.

While I strongly believe it is a week or two early for most pruning, here comes a very timely question.

Dear Andrew: Despite using established pruning methods and timing of the same, my old apple tree has several dozen sprouts 5 feet to 6 feet long and no more than two apples year after year.

What do you think?

— Marty

Dear Marty: Asking the question was good, asking me what I think — that could be dangerous.

Since you did, here we go. We are talking about the established tradition of root pruning! Few types of plants respond better to the advantageous effects of root pruning than fruit trees.

First, however, I am thinking about what established methods of pruning are you using.

No method I know of would ever allow water sprouts, especially dozens of them, to be a foot or two long — let alone 5 or 6 feet.

Before I address the highly useful and valuable root prune, let me discuss the extreme damage these heavy, long sprouts do to your tree.

These water sprouts rob the tree of nutrients and moisture. They call upon the tree’s resources to feed their extremely rapid growth and do so at the expense of the fruit.

Not only that, their accelerated growth places a majority of the tree at a height that makes it very difficult to prune or pick.

Also, this growth is unsightly and weak, which can result in storm damage to the whole tree in its windy future.

Please remove these offending sprouts in the next 2 to 4 weeks. I am also thinking you have the luck of the Irish, because few jobs can give such a pleasurable return as root pruning old fruit trees.

Root pruning is a technique used to encourage and develop a fibrous root system rather than large anchor roots.

The more fibrous a root system, the more moisture and dissolved nutrients a tree can take up. The more nourishment a plant takes up, the more leaf, flower and fruit your apple tree can produce.

It is very common, but mostly ignored by hobbyists, for an orchardist to root prune trees when they persistently produce poorly and do so even though other conditions are good, such as water, nutrient, soil and sun.

The late fall trimester is the ideal time for this job, but this weekend would also be fine.

Since this is a large tree, move out 6 to 8 feet from the trunk and dig a trench a few inches wide and 2 or 3 foot deep.

You are digging to find the large anchor roots that will be several inches thick.

As you expose these in the trench, completely sever them.

Thrust a sharp shovel as deeply as you can down to the bottom of the trench to cut any other large feeder roots.

Fill this trench with a nice loose compost or mulch for easy root pruning year after year.

Remove all grass inside the circle and cover the area with 6 inches to 8 inches of mulch.

Do all these tricks together, then send me an apple pie this fall — you’ll surely have enough of them.

And don’t forget ... stay well all!


Andrew May is a freelance writer and ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email news@peninsulanews.us (subject line: Andrew May).

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