We are among many work exchange programs in Hawaii that strive to employ sustainable, permaculture principles in maintaining our grounds. Low-input, environmentally sustainable methods provide the most nutritious foods and the greatest plant volume at the lowest possible cost. In reducing our utilization of external inputs, we not only save money. We also refrain from introducing potentially toxic chemicals into our soils and, by extension, our food.
One of the most foundational concepts of sustainable farming as part of work exchange programs in Hawaii is pruning. Whether you own a large farm or are simply looking to preserve the aesthetic appeal of your suburban front lawn, a basic understanding of the benefits and methods of pruning is absolutely essential. At Gingerhill, pruning is particularly critical because it increases the quality of output of our many fruit trees. Below we explore some of the benefits of pruning and provide basic guidance on trimming your own trees.
The Purpose of Pruning in Syntropic Agriculture
We are among other work exchange programs in Hawaii that employ permaculture principles in managing our orchards and gardens. Perhaps the most influential agricultural methodology that informs our practices is Syntropic Farming. The term is derived from the word “syntropy,” which refers to an increase in complexity. Syntropic farming is therefore a method of diversifying the nutritional and biological contents of an ecosystem. The objective is to leverage indigenous materials for planting and fertilization purposes to maximize the health of your ecosystem.
Pruning is one of the most foundational elements of Syntropic Farming work exchange programs in Hawaii. In unadulterated ecosystems, diseased or weak branches will naturally fall from the tree. On the ground, bacteria and fungi decompose the wood into soil. In so doing, indigenous life forms convert “dead” plant material into organic, natural fertilizer that restores carbon to the ecosystem and feeds the tree from which it fell.
The objective of pruning in Syntropic Farming is to emulate this natural process through human intervention. Whether you simply leave the branches around the area you cut them from or choose to process them for use as mulch in other areas, you can create incredibly rich soil at minimal to no labor and cost. And the pruned limbs don’t just function as fertilizer. They also aid in erosion protection, soil protection, water preservation, and carbon sequestration.
The Importance of Pruning Fruit Trees
At Gingerhill, we have a lot of fruit trees. Mango, star apple, mountain apple, lemon, loquat, orange, pomelo, avocado, lychee, Surinam cherry, starfruit, guava—name a tropical fruit and we probably have it. Pruning is critical to the health of all trees, but it is particularly essential for maintaining the health of fruit trees. Pruning is key to encouraging a tree not just to produce a lot, but also to produce fruit of superior quality. We therefore take great care in pruning our fruit trees.
One of the benefits of pruning young fruit trees is to “balance” the root system. When you initially plant a fruit tree, you may inadvertently damage the tree’s nutrient supply lines or “feeder roots.” A freshly planted tree therefore has a limited capacity to supply nutrients to all parts of a plant. Pruning reduces the size of the tree, therefore reducing its overall nutritional needs. Pruning a fruit tree young therefore results in a smaller but well-nourished tree, as opposed to a large, weak, malnourished one.
You can reap similar benefits in pruning fruit trees later in life. When you prune diseased or damage limbs, you divert the nutrients and energy that would have been devoted to repairing those limbs to other healthier limbs, creating a larger tree with a greater abundance of fruit. You are also able to treat and prevent disease while simultaneously stimulating growth. Pruning water sprouts and suckers is critical as well, so you don’t end up with crowded and weak branches.
The Structural Integrity of Pruned Trees
Pruning is important for ensuring the structural integrity of your tree. If you start pruning a tree when it is young, you can “train” the tree. The objective is to encourage it to grow to great size without becoming too tall or wide. In so doing, you also optimize the tree’s ability to evenly and effectively bear the weight of fruit. To do so, cut the central stem of the tree at two and a half or three feet off of the ground. Preventing the tree from growing too tall encourages it to direct growth outward instead, which will help it bear weight.
Promoting structural integrity also requires prioritizing which branches to keep and which to cut. A tree has a finite amount of nutrients available to it. If it has too many branches, it will not be able to nourish each one properly, resulting in a lot of weak branches. Pruning branches that are weak, growing at a sharp angle relative to the trunk, diseased, damaged, or that cross over other branches ensures that the few strong, healthy branches left will only become stronger and will bear more fruit.
In the first few years of a tree’s life, you will also want to either prune fruit-bearing branches or trim the fruit. Trees that fruit at a young age divert energy from developing structural integrity. The result: A small, weak tree that bears low-quality fruit.
Other benefits of pruning include increased exposure to light, which increases the tree’s rate of photosynthesis, and increased aeration.
Tips and Precautions
There are a few simple tips that will guide you through the pruning process regardless of the type of tree that you are trimming. First, you want to eliminate any damaged or diseased branches, followed by weak branches and suckers. Prioritize keeping strong, healthy branches that are growing at approximately a 45-degree angle from the tree, or at a 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock angle. It is best to work from the base of the tree and up to get a better view of what you are working with. Pruning trees when they are dormant will also give you a better view of the tree, making it easier to select which branches to trim. A completely trimmed tree should bear a shape resembling that of a vase.
When cutting a branch shorter, you always want to cut at a slant to encourage healthy new growth. However, if you are cutting whole branches off of other branches or the trunk, you want to make a cut that is almost flat against the surface from which the branch is growing. High-quality, sharp spears and saws are critical for making clean cuts that will enable easy growth. Rubbing the blades of your tools with a little bit of oil will help keep them clean and sharp.
Finally, be careful not to over-prune your tree. It is great that pruning increases exposure to sunlight. However, too much pruning can actually burn the tree, leaving it more vulnerable to disease and infestation.