I’d be kidding if I didn’t admit that the time of year I love the most for fruit orcharding is harvest time. Who could resist the joy of bringing in baskets of fresh sweet fruit to share with those we love?
But this isn’t about harvest time. This is about the other fun season, at least for me and at least for the time being. I love to prune fruit trees. February is fruit tree pruning month, and I don’t want to miss a moment of it. I love working outside when it’s cool; I love getting up close and personal with my trees; I love the stark beauty of a fruit tree skeleton that will disappear later under a canopy of foliage; and I love the unhurried nature of it. Little decisions. Where to clip this branch? Should I start over here? Which of these two branches seems likely to emerge as the leader?
Yesterday was muscadine pruning day. I always start with the muscadines, because their insistence on many warm days before budding makes them relatively invulnerable to freeze damage, so my pruning them first raises little danger of stimulating growth into a late season frost.
Here’s a young Supreme muscadine in position # 8.5. If you click on it and view the high-res version, you’ll spot several unruly tendrils, some as long as 4-5 feet. Muscadines fruit on last year’s wood, so the goal in muscadine pruning is to maximize the amount of one-year-old wood, not just for this growing season but in the future as well. So when we prune we cut tendrils back to three or four buds. That positions them so they will have a good chance to set fruit this year and to produce branches that will set fruit next year.
Each year, as the wood branches and branches again, the wood gets more crowded and more productive. My trees are too young to have this problem, but older muscadines, even after careful annual pruning, can become too crowded, and the solution is to remove some branches from the cordon in their entirety just to allow some space.
Here on the right is the same muscadine after pruning. There are still lots of branches, but they’re clipped back to 3-4 buds. The result is a more orderly plant with plenty of one-year-old wood but also room to grow during the season ahead.
Another frequent problem with muscadines is the tendency to send out tendrils that wind around key branches or even cordons, constricting the growth of that branch and eventually killing it. So another of the tasks of muscadine pruning is to examine the cordons and key branches to ensure they’re free of destructive tendrils.
When you plant a muscadine, you want it to reach the trellis line by the end of the growing season. Nine times out of ten, they’ve done that for us. We do have one Granny Val we planted last year, though, that didn’t quite make it. Actually, it would have made it too, but I got careless in pruning it last year and cut off the wrong stalk.
A few days ago Chip East, one of our most respected fruit advisers here in Alabama, suggested that when this happens the best course is to cut it off at the ground and force it to grow back to the trellis line. He predicts it will come back with extra vigor the second year because it will be growing from a more established root system.
So yesterday I decided to put Chip’s idea to the test. To the left is the discouraged Granny Val that didn’t make it to the trellis line last year. If you click on it and look closely at the high-res version, you’ll see the string I used unsuccessfully last year to entice the vine to climb to the trellis line. To the right is the tiny stump left about two inches off the ground where I cut it off. I will be watching it closely during the spring; if I’m a real man I’ll update this post to let you know the results.