Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Pruning Apples and Pears

Proper pruning increase the harvest.  The white powder is Kaolin clay an organic insect deterrant.

The goal of pruning is to improve the health, fruit yield, and appearance of the tree. 
When to prune:  Before the buds swell.  This is when the tree is dormant.  Late winter or early spring is ideal.

Three easy steps to pruning:

1.  Health and Healing
Prune out all diseased, dead, and damaged branches.  Prune out any branches that cross or rub.
No dead or diseased but lots of crossing and rubbing branches.

2.  Heading cuts:  
Purpose:  Heading cuts are designed to control the height of the tree and encourage branching off the main limbs. 
Procedure:  With a heading cut, part of a shoot is  removed by cutting 1/4 inch above a lateral bud leaving behind a stub. Heading cuts stimulate growth of buds or branching below the cut because apical dominance has be en removed.
 Another variation of the heading cut is to cut back to a lateral shoot instead of just a bud.  Choose a lateral branch that is directed outward and upward with a good angel and make cut just above that branch.  Less growth is stimulated by this type of cut. (Pruning Fruit Trees by Mark S Burnell)
This is a standard tree.  The canopy will be headed back by 10-20% to control the height.  I don't have a fence around my orchard so I don't want my trees too short or the deer get the harvest not me.

3.  Thinning Cuts

Purpose:  Thinning is necessary because fruit trees produce too much new growth which shades lower wood and will reduces flower bud formation and fruit development.  The goal of thinning is to reduce crowding, increase air circulation, and sunlight penetration to lower parts of the tree. Thinning cuts are also used to establish the main scaffold branches by removing unwanted lateral branches when the tree is young and being trained.
(Pruning Fruit Trees by Mark S Burnell)

Procedure:  Thinning cuts remove entire shoots, leaving no stub behind.
  When thinning branches, the angle of the branch will be the factor that determines whether to remove the branch or leave the branch.  The ideal branch angle is between 45 and 60 degrees.  Branches with this angle will develop into very strong branches that can bear the weight of the fruit.  Branches with a narrow angle, less than 45 degrees, can be bent down to the proper angle when they are young and flexible, using toothpicks, sticks, clothespins, or by tying them down.  Branches at a narrow angle that have hardened and can’t be bent are probably best removed.
(Pruning Fruit Trees by Mark S Burnell)

Thinning cuts are also used to thin out crowded spur systems. They should be 4-6 inches apart.

Too many vigorous shoots thinning needed.  The spurs on underside of  the branch can also be removed because they will be shaded.

Still a little unsure?  Here is a step by step process suggested by the Royal Horticulture Society:

To start with

  • Always use sharp bypass pruners, loppers and a pruning saw
  • Start by removing crossing, rubbing, weak, dead, diseased, damaged and dying branches


  • Shorten the previous year’s growth on each main branch  by about one third to a bud facing in the required direction. This will encourage the development of new branches and spurs and maintain a good shape 

  • Leave young laterals (side-shoots) unpruned so they can develop fruit buds in the second year 

  • Only remove the young laterals if they are crossing or if the growth is too crowded, i.e. growing closer 4-6 inches at the base 

  • Remove strong shoots 6in  growing towards the center of the tree 

  • On older trees, remove/thin out any spur systems that have become congested. Where thinning or removal is required, remove spurs on the underside of the branches, where the developing fruit will not receive enough light, and produces inferior fruit (Royal Horticulture Society)

This apple variety Sungold seems to have a very upright growth habit.  It's best to spread limbs when the tree is young.  I did not do that, but suggest that training trees the first few years makes pruning easier and is less complicated and discouraging than correcting a mature tree. 



As sections of the branch framework are removed the pruned tree is likely to produce watershoots - which are tall, upright branches, that produce no flowers or fruit. By only remove 10-20% of the canopy per year fewer watershoots will be produced.

If watershoots arise, there is no need to remove all of them but they will need thinning out;
  • Consider if any strong, well placed watershoots may be used for as replacement branches in the future and tip prune them by about a quarter to an outward facing bud to encourage branching 

  • If well placed and not causing congestion of the crown, leave some of the weaker (thinner and less upright) watershoots unpruned. They may produce fruit buds and act as secondary branches 

  • Remove any remaining water shoots 9 inches or more in length at the point of origin
  • If you spot new watershoots, rub them off during the growing season as they appear

Avoid giving your trees a "hair cut"

 I cringe when I see tree topped off.  It looks like you took a chain saw to the tree and cut off the top.  When this is done you will have a thicket of young growth shot up from each cut.  It will be non fruiting wood that will have to be removed each year.  Not a healthy practice for the tree or the pruner. 

Pruning is one area that I did not take the time to learn properly when I planted my orchard.  I did not train my trees when they where young because I didn't understand the purpose of pruning and how essential it is to having  larger yields and well sized fruit.  Also with apples lack of pruning will result in biennial fruit bearing and very small fruit.  So take the time to read and learn from experienced people in your area, the extension office, and other resources.  Managing an orchard is a lot of work but the harvests are worth it! 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Starting "Fussy" Seeds

One of the most rewarding aspects of gardening is starting your own seeds. Seed starting opens up a whole new world of choice.  Vegetable seed and most annual flowers are fairly easy to grow from seed. Viable seeds only require moisture, the right temperature, oxygen, and a few require light.  The seed germinates with little fuss; however, some seeds require special consideration and are a bit more finicky.

Perennial seeds and some annual flowers need more attention than others.  Sometimes a seed has an extremely hard seed coat that doesn't allow moisture in or the embryo in the seed may need to break dormancy, the seed might contain a chemical substance that prohibits germination, or it may need darkness or light to germinate.

There are ways to deal with these issues

Seeds That need Soaking due to Seed-Coat Dormancy

There are two reasons a seed may require soaking in water.  First it may have a hard seed coat that does not allow moisture and oxygen to permeate,  and second there may be chemicals present that inhibit germination.  Soaking will leach out chemicals that inhibit germination.  

Cold Water Soak

Peas and other legumes benefit from soaking in room temperature for a day or two.  It is important to plant them immediately after soaking.

Hot-water Soak

Place seeds in hot, not boiling, water.  Cover the seeds completely with water.  Soak for 24 hours unless instructed otherwise on the seed packet.  If you soak the seed longer, change the water daily.  Plant the seeds immediately after soaking.  You don't want them to dry out.  Hot water leaches out germination inhibitors.  The hot water causes the seed coat to crack and imbibition occurs as the water cools.

Seeds That Require Soaking Before Sowing

Okra, Asparagus, Mallow, Morning Glory, Sweet Pea, Lupines, Parsnips, Parsley
Peas and Beans will benefit from soaking but it is not required


Scarification is the process of nicking the seed coat to allow moisture to penetrate the hard seed coat.  Be very careful not to nick too deeply and damage the embryo.  There are different methods you can use.  A file or small fingernail clippers can be used.  Small seeds can be rubbed between sandpaper.

Seed that Require Scarification

Wild Blue and False Indigo, Morning Glory, Moonflower, Sweet Pea and Lupines

Notice some of the seeds require both nicking and then soaking to aid in germination.


Many perennial seeds are dormant.  This is to ensure that the seeds do not germinate in the same season they mature only to die due to winter.  Dormancy allows the seed to survive winter and then germinate the following spring.  

Stratification involves introducing moist cold conditions that mimic winter and tell the seed to break dormancy and germinate.  Some seeds such as lettuce and delphinium will become dormant if they experience temperatures over 75 degrees for a few weeks and must be chilled in order to germinate.

To stratify mix the seeds in a moist seedling mix in a ziplock bag and place in the freezer or refrigerator.  You can also plant the seeds in their containers or flats and put the entire tray in the freezer in a ziplock bag so it does not dry out.   Some seeds require 6 weeks to 3 months to stratify so plan ahead.

An easier way is to us the weather to stratify and plant outdoors in the fall.  If your winter drops below 40 place the seeds in their containers outside on the north side of the house.  Do not allow them to dry out.  Or you can plant them directly in the ground.

Do not stratify by placing just the seed packet in the freezer. The seeds need to be imbedded or stratification cannot begin.  

A point of interest is that the freezing temperature of most seeds is lower than water.  Most seeds won't freeze until around 22F or 6 C.

Seeds that Require Stratification:

Snapdragon, Columbines Larkspurs, Delphinium, Bleeding Heart, Coneflower, Sweet Pea, Bells of Ireland, Penstemons, Phlox, Black Eyed Susan, Veronicas , Pansies

The number of weeks to stratify varies by species.  The seed packet should have this information. Often instead of stratifying the seed packets recommends planting in fall or very early spring so that the seed experiences the cold necessary to break dormancy.

Light Treatments

Some seeds are photosensitive.  They will not germinate if buried to deeply.  They must be exposed to certain light rays to germinate.  They are usually very small seeds and it is best to press them into the surface of the planting medium.  If buried too deeply they do not receive the red light  rays necessary to break dormancy.  This is to protect the small seed from germinate and being unable to reach sunlight before the stored food source is depleted.

Seeds that Require Light to Germinate

Yarrow, Snapdragon, Columbine, Hollyhock,Ornamental Cabbage, Feverfew, Lobelelias, Forget-me-Nots, Petunia, Coleus, Impatiens, Strawflower, Sweet Alyssum, Nicotiana, Savory, Lettuce, Celery

It is so rewarding to start your own seeds and more economical.  Try a few "fussy" seeds this season.  They will reward you with dazzling beauty!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Heirlooms, Hybrid, & Open-Pollinated Seeds

Old Mother Stollard an heirloom dried bean

It all begins with a seed, some soil, and a vision of a healthy, bountiful harvest.    What is the difference between open- pollinated, heirlooms, hybrids, and GMO seeds?  What is best for the backyard gardener? 

 "Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind:  for your pocket-book not only suffers by it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved."  
George Washington
Plant a seed; reap the harvest!

 Types of Seeds

Open-pollinated seeds (OP) are pollinated by wind or insects.  If you save seeds from OP plants the seeds will produce a plant that will yield fruits true to the type you obtained the seeds from.  All heirlooms (H) are open-pollinated, but not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms. 

An heirloom (H) is an open-pollinated variety with a history.  They are generally a variety that is 40-50 years old that has been preserved and kept true to a particular region.  They have a beloved history and unusual shapes, colors, and flavors.  Seed saver organization and gardeners have kept heirlooms alive.  If you grow Brandywine tomatoes and save seeds from the best tasting, earliest ripening plants year after year, you would have a locally adapted strain of Brandywine different from other seed saver in other parts of the country. 

Heirloom lettuces

Hybrids  F1 are a cross between two different parent plants. They are pollinated manually.  The resulting fruit has characteristics of both parents.  To continue to get that variety you must cross the original two parents; therefore, you cannot save seeds from hybrids.  The seeds will not be true to type, and generally only first generation hybrids are vigorous, healthy plants.

One of my favorite heirloom tomatoes, Paul Robeson.

GMO’s are genetically modified organisms.  The DNA of the plant is modified by engineers for certain characteristics. For example, certain plants are modified to tolerant roundup so fields can be sprayed without killing the desired crop. GMO seed is very common in corn, rice, and soybeans.  There are health concerns about GMO seeds and they are banned in some countries. 

Long Island Cheese, an heirloom pumpkin or winter squash

So what is the best type for the backyard gardener?  There is a place in my garden for heirlooms, hybrids, and open- pollinated varieties.  If you can grow it and you like to eat it, then stick with it.  I love trying new varieties along with family favorites.

 If you are saving seeds make sure it is from an open pollinated or heirloom variety.  The easiest seeds to save are from tomatoes, beans, peas, peppers and lettuce.  They are self-pollinating with less risk of cross pollination.

Seeds should be stored in a cool, dark, and dry environment.  Start with good quality seeds.  Cheap, old seeds have poor germination rates.  For best germination rates, replace seeds every 3 to 5 years.  I replace seeds every 3 year.

Ready, Set, Plant!

When Soil Temperatures are between 45-75 its time to plant  cool season crops.