A sunny February day is often the cure Alabama gardeners need for cabin fever.
As winter winds down and the days grow longer and warmer, gardeners will venture outdoors to lay the groundwork for bountiful harvests from their gardens and home orchards.
February is perfect for pruning apple and pear trees, said Mike Reeves, a regional agent specializing in commercial horticulture for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. He is a member of the Morgan County Farmers Federation board of directors.
“Sometimes people get in a hurry with their pruning and cause problems for their trees,” said Reeves, whose family has operated an orchard for more than 60 years. “When you prune too early, you stimulate new growth that can be damaged by the next harsh cold snap.”
Peaches, nectarines and plums, which are more susceptible to cold damage after pruning, should not be trimmed until March or early April, Reeves said. Peaches and nectarines should be pruned using the open-center method, which resembles an upside-down umbrella. The open center of the tree allows sunlight and air to penetrate the leaf canopy.
Apples and pears should be pruned using a central leader method, which encourages the tree to grow in a pyramid or Christmas-tree form. The shape helps maximize light penetration to the center of the tree.
Plums can be pruned using the open-center or central leader methods.
Reeves said the height fruit trees are allowed to grow is a matter of personal preference. Some growers prefer to keep trees pruined low so the fruit can be harvested without a ladder, while others like a taller tree.
Details on pruning methods are available at Alabama Cooperative Extension System offices throughout the state and online at aces.edu.
When removing limbs that show signs of canker, fire blight or other diseases, pruning tools should be dipped in a solution of chlorine bleach and water between each cut to prevent transferring diseases to healthy limbs. Diseased limbs should be removed from the orchard and burned.
Chris Becker, a regional Extension agent from Limestone County specializing in home horticulture, said annual pruning is vital to fruit production.
“If you wait four or five years between pruning, production will suffer greatly,” he said.
Grape vines must be pruned severely every year to encourage new growth, he said.
“You’ve really got to be aggressive when pruning grapes,” Becker said. “I’ve seen muscadines that had almost stopped producing fruit after the owner failed to prune them for several years. The vines just grew wild and became a tangled mess. Once those vines were pruned, they began producing again.”
Blueberries and brambles, such as blackberries, also need to be pruned annually, Becker said.
“No matter what type of fruit you are growing, annual pruning is a must to keep the plants healthy and producing an optimum yield,” he said.