Tree Beings & Developing a Pruning Practice:
A tree is an intelligent collective of 10,000 to 100,000 meristems, each capable of genetic mutation.
A collection of compatible genetic individuals form a tree entity yet each responds differently to energy and stimuli. (1) So, each fruit and flower has localized and unique qualities such as color, flavor and size. Pruning is a way by which a conscientious caretaker of the land can serve the plants, and personal food needs by pruning away damaged, diseased or undesirable plant matter.
Timing & The Moon:
Take care to prune plants and trees that are mature yet not in a fruiting phase. Preferably late winter into early spring before the plant begins to flower. Or alternatively late summer into early winter after the fruit has been harvested.
Pruning after a new moon promotes growth and can be applied to fruit trees or plants where new growth is encouraged during waxing phase leading up to the full moon.
Pruning after a full moon suggests to the plant slowing of regrowth as sap and water in the plants is more concentrated in the roots of the plant as the moon energies wane into the new moon.
Mentorship & Practice:
In regenerative and sustainable agricultural systems trees provide food, shelter from the elements, timber, forage for bees, transpiration and they play a key role in earth’s water cycle.
Trees and plants are complex beings and great care should be taken if and when you decide to prune. Trees are social beings- they share resources and information with each other by way of the mycelial network within the soil.
Peter Wollheben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, writes: “When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down with large machines.” (2) If you decide to prune a tree, understand that you are participating in plant surgery. Novice gardeners are encouraged to work closely with an experienced mentor who is well practiced in pruning and other techniques of sustainable agriculture. Some public libraries offer a Community Seed Library (CSL) program that hosts workshops on gardening education. Here is what I learned about pruning from Master Gardener Diana Duff during a Hawaii CSL presentation she gave February 2019:
Follow the 4D’s and prune when Dead, Diseased, Disfigured or Dysfunctional
First, remove any dead or brittle branches by cutting the branch back to nearest healthy branch or stem of the plant.
Next remove any sickly, diseased or pest infested branches by clearing up to 30 percent of total mass of the plant. Treat the plant with natural amendments or organic remedies after pruning away diseased parts.
Pause, take a step back and look at your progress to avoid over-pruning and to keep the job balanced. If you have removed dead and diseased parts that comprise up to 30 percent of the plant, you will have to wait a couple of months to allow the plant to recover before continuing with any further pruning.
If you have not yet pruned away 30 percent total mass of the plant then you may continue to remove any disfigured matter. Look for branches that are crossing, crowding or tangled and at risk of damaging other parts of the plant.
Finally, clear away any parts of the plant that do not produce flowers or fruit. Remove any suckers and water sprouts as soon as they appear because they take valuable nutrients from the plant. Water sprouts appear on older wood after a heavy rain or watering. Suckers and water sprouts grow vigorously and vertically and do not produce fruit. Remove anything from below the graft line of a grafted tree as these are suckers from the root-stock tree.
Pruned plant matter has many uses in a sustainable agriculture practice such as food for animals, food for people, mulch for plants, and compost.
Tree Talk & Pruning Terms:
Tree & plant care requires intuition and experience. Before you begin any work, tune into the needs of the plant and be receptive and willing to work slowly and mindfully.
Photo: Lychee tree in March. Before flowering & after a pruning by Aaron Sternberg. Photo credit: Sarah Montaño
Trees have a trunk, a leader branch, secondary branches and meristems. Each branch has a terminal bud, axillary buds, flower buds, latent buds and nodes. A node shows promise of growth and may become a new branch. A bud has the potential to become a leaf or flower and flowers are the potential parents to fruit.
To make a proper cut prune with sharp, clean shears at a 45 degree angle ¼-inch above a node. New growth will come from behind face of the cut and grow in the direction of the node. To thin a tree, look for a crotch or the ‘V’ point where a stem or branch diverges from the trunk, and make a clean cut back to the main trunk.
Detritus is the collection of fallen leaves, dead branches, bird feathers & droppings and dried plants at the base of a tree. It is an important part of the tree entity because bacteria and fungi live here and help to decompose materials in order to make nutrients available for exchange within the mycelial network beneath the soil.
Once you have developed a rhythm tending to plants and have mastered the 4 D's of Pruning, you may wish to develop techniques to enhance aesthetics of the garden: Thinning, Shaping and Soil-building.
Thinning a plant helps to create more room for greater air circulation and light to reach lower parts of the plant. Here at Gingerhill farm we strive to plant 60 percent of the biomass of the farm to be directed toward fertility. A key practice of sustainable agriculture is utilizing available material to provide for needs of the farm. Biomass from pruned trees can be used as mulch, animal feed, or to build compost.
Shaping a tree can help to evenly distribute fruiting branches to minimize stress on the branches. Take care to remove any branches that are growing far beyond overhead to promote fruit growth at a level that makes for easier picking of fruit. Maintain organic and natural shapes. Keep the bottom of the tree wider than the top to allow light to reach all lower branches and leaves on the tree.
Soil-building and nitrogen fixing crops such as pigeon pea, ice cream bean, or gliricidia sepium can be planted in between fruit trees and in areas that have little or poor topsoil. A nitrogen fixing plant has the ability to capture and store atmospheric nitrogen in the plant body and nodules of the root system. Fungi and bacteria have the ability to break the nitrogen bond and exchange it within the mycelial network to supply the neighboring plants with bioavailable nitrogen. A symbiotic relationship occurs when a plant exchanges carbohydrates created by photosynthesis to the microorganism in exchange for nitrogen.
You can help make more nitrogen available in the soil by pruning the nitrogen-fixing trees. Nitrogen is then delivered by leaf fall, chop and drop pruning, and by root die back in the soil. When the canopy of the tree is pruned, a corresponding amount of root matter will also decompose and create soil from underfoot. Planting nitrogen fixing trees is a vital practice for sustainable agriculture because the process of biological nitrogen fixation promotes soil fertility -a natural solution that negates the need to add synthetic fertilizers. Chopping and dropping leaves and wood from trees to build the detritus environment on the ground also provides prime habitat conditions for beneficial bacteria and fungi to colonize the are.
Do no harm:
Never top or hat rack a tree or plant. When the top of the plant is removed by cutting the leader and terminal buds, unnatural and unsustainable lateral growth is inevitable and can cause disease and death in the tree. Do not take more than ⅓ of the crown of the tree or the plant will not have enough leaves to acquire necessary nutrients through photosynthesis. When branches are partially pruned and left as stubs, or hat-racks, the stub is susceptible to infection or decay. A good pruning cut should be nearly undetectable and flush with the branch or trunk.
Today is the Spring Equinox, a sagacious time to visit the garden and be of service to new growth and fertility.
Mollision, Bill (1988). Permaculture: A designer’s model. Tyalgum, NSW 2484, Australia: Tagari Publications
Wollheben, Peter (2015). The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Greystone Books Ltd.