Grit Blogs > Panthers Hollow

Pruning, Tying, and Spreading

Jennifer QuinnWith the early onset of spring, the first thing I’ve had to think about is care of my fruit trees and shrubs. I knew I’d need to prune the elderberries and blackberries, so I had that on my schedule for March. Ideally, that would have been done while the shrubs were still dormant, but with the unseasonably warm weather everything took me by surprise and started leafing out early! Still, I managed to get to them while the leaves were tiny, so I figured better late than never.

I read that elderberries should be hard-pruned in the third year. That’s something I had overlooked until now, with the bushes in their fourth year and not yet pruned. I’m not sure exactly what hard pruning means, but I figured I should be fairly ruthless. There was a lot of dead wood to be trimmed off, and I knew I should get rid of those tall, straight stems in the middle that didn’t have any side branches on them. Then there were all the little branches that were crossed or too close together. I’m amazed what a time-consuming chore this can be — scrutinizing the shrub from all sides and deciding what to keep and what to cut.

I had to spread the work out over two days but finally had all five elderberries done, and I must say they look a whole lot better. Here’s the biggest one after pruning:

Pruned elderberry

Then there were the blackberries. These, I understood, should be thinned by removing the weaker canes, and the remaining ones should be cut back to no more than seven feet. Having done that, I needed to tie them to the ropes and wires since they were falling all over and lying on top of each other. Here’s the result:

Blackberries tied

As for the old apple trees I inherited when I moved here, I gave them a really serious pruning last year so none this year. Instead I’ve been busy spreading cardboard, rugs, and tarps all around them in an effort to kill the weeds because I plan to seed the area with mammoth red clover later on. I learned that the corky spots on the apples are probably caused by a calcium deficiency, and the clover is supposed to mine calcium from deeper in the soil, besides fixing nitrogen which should help them, too.

Last spring I did something that might seem foolish — I bought a yellow delicious apple tree that I saw outside the supermarket. I know you’re supposed to get your trees from reputable nurseries, but I couldn’t afford that and really wanted a new apple tree. I thought: for just fifteen dollars, what do I have to lose? But then I spent about another ten dollars for a planting mix, not having heard the new theory that it’s better not to improve the soil around a tree lest the roots just grow around in a circle and not spread out.

Anyway, the soil seemed rather poor in the only spot I could find for the tree, so maybe it needed all the help it could get. After planting the tree I seeded the area around it with crimson clover, which has grown nicely. And in the fall I planted garlic there, too, having heard that it’s good for apple trees. I’m not sure why — maybe it deters apple maggots and other such pests?

Of course, the tree looked like a fork when I got it, so I set about making spreaders to separate the branches. This I did by lashing two forked sticks together. In some cases I had to hang a jug of water from the spreader to weight it down, since they have a way of creeping up and falling out. It’s especially difficult here in the "holler" because things tend to grow taller than normal. It seems they’re reaching up to try to get more sunlight.

The tree has grown noticeably since I planted it and had some weak growth that needed to be pruned off. I saw where it needed a few more spreaders, too, so I added a couple of those. I think I need one more, but I have to put a ladder in there to get up and reach it. Here it is, though, all nicely spread out:

Apple tree with spreaders

My strawberries are already emerging, so the other day I got the bed all weeded out and planted about 40 onions in there. Looks like I’m pretty well set with my fruit crops for this year!