A tree is an intelligent collective of 10,000 to 100,000 meristems, each capable of genetic mutation. Pruning tree branches is a critical component of preserving the vibrant life and intellectual integrity of a tree being.
A collection of compatible genetic individuals form a tree entity, yet each responds differently to energy and stimuli (1). So, each fruit and flower has localized and unique qualities such as color, flavor and size. Pruning tree branches is a way for conscientious caretakers of the land to serve the plants and personal food needs by removing damaged, diseased or undesirable plant matter.
Timing & The Moon:
Ensure that you are pruning tree branches and plants that are mature yet not in a fruiting phase. Ideally, you should prune from winter into early spring before the plant begins to flower. Alternatively, you can prune late summer into early winter after the fruit has been harvested.
Pruning tree branches after a new moon promotes growth. Apply to fruit trees or plants during the waxing phase leading up to the full moon in order to encourage growth.
Pruning after a full moon encourages the plant to slowly regrow, as sap and water in the plants are more concentrated in its roots as the moon energies wane into the new moon.
Mentorship & Practice:
In regenerative and sustainable agricultural systems, trees provide food, shelter from the elements, timber, forage for bees, and transpiration. Additionally, they play a key role in the earth’s water cycle.
Trees and plants are complex beings. Thus, great care should be taken if and when you decide to prune. Trees are social beings; they share resources and information with each other by way of the mycelial network within the soil.
Peter Wollheben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, writes: “When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down with large machines” (2). If you decide to prune a tree, understand that you are participating in plant surgery. Novice gardeners are encouraged to work closely with an experienced mentor who is well practiced in pruning tree branches and other techniques of sustainable agriculture. Some public libraries offer a Community Seed Library (CSL) program that hosts workshops on gardening education. Here is what I learned about pruning from Master Gardener Diana Duff during a Hawaii CSL presentation she gave in February, 2019:
Follow the 4D’s and Prune When Dead, Diseased, Disfigured or Dysfunctional
First, remove any dead or brittle branches by cutting the branch back to the nearest healthy branch or stem of the plant.
Next, remove any sickly, diseased, or pest infested branches by clearing up to 30 percent of the total mass of the plant. Treat the plant with natural amendments or organic remedies after pruning away diseased parts.
Pause, take a step back, and look at your progress to avoid over-pruning and keep the job balanced. If you have removed dead and diseased parts that comprise up to 30 percent of the plant, you will have to wait a couple of months to allow the plant to recover before continuing with any further pruning.
If you have not yet pruned away 30 percent of the total mass of the plant, then you may continue to remove any disfigured matter. Look for branches that are crossing, crowding, or tangled. These branches risk damage to other parts of the plant.
Finally, clear away any parts of the plant that do not produce flowers or fruit. Remove any suckers and water sprouts as soon as they appear because they leech valuable nutrients from the plant. Water sprouts appear on older wood after a heavy rain or watering. Suckers and water sprouts grow vigorously and vertically and do not produce fruit. Remove anything from below the graft line of a grafted tree, as these are suckers from the root-stock tree.
Pruned plant matter has many uses in a sustainable agriculture practice, such as food for animals, food for people, mulch for plants, and compost.
Tree Talk & Pruning Terms:
Tree & plant care requires intuition and experience. Before you begin any work, tune into the needs of the plant and be receptive and willing to work slowly and mindfully.
Trees have a trunk, a leader branch, secondary branches, and meristems. Each branch has a terminal bud, axillary buds, flower buds, latent buds and nodes. A node shows promise of growth and may become a new branch. A bud has the potential to become a leaf or flower and flowers are the potential parents to fruit.
To make a proper cut, prune with sharp, clean shears at a 45 degree angle ¼-inch above a node. New growth will come from behind the face of the cut and grow in the direction of the node. To thin a tree, look for a crotch, or the ‘V’ point where a stem or branch diverges from the trunk. Here, make a clean cut back to the main trunk.
Detritus is the collection of fallen leaves, dead branches, bird feathers and droppings, and dried plants at the base of a tree. It is an important part of the tree entity because bacteria and fungi live here and help to decompose materials in order to make nutrients available for exchange within the mycelial network beneath the soil.
Once you have developed a rhythm tending to plants and have mastered the 4 D’s of pruning, you may wish to develop techniques to enhance aesthetics of the garden: Thinning, Shaping and Soil-building.
Thinning a plant creates more room for air circulation and light to reach lower parts of the plant. Here at Gingerhill Farm, we strive to plant 60 percent of the biomass of the farm for fertility purposes. A key practice of sustainable agriculture is utilizing available material to meet the needs of the farm. Biomass from pruned trees can be used as mulch, animal feed, or to build compost.
Shaping a tree can help to evenly distribute fruiting branches, thus minimizing stress on the branches. Take care to remove any branches that are growing far overhead to promote fruit growth at a level that makes for easier picking. Maintain organic and natural shapes. Keep the bottom of the tree wider than the top. Doing so allows light to reach all lower branches and leaves on the tree.
Soil-building and nitrogen fixing crops such as pigeon pea, ice cream bean, or gliricidia sepium can be planted in between fruit trees and in areas that have little or poor topsoil. A nitrogen fixing plant has the ability to capture and store atmospheric nitrogen in the plant body and nodules of the root system. Fungi and bacteria have the ability to break the nitrogen bond and exchange it within the mycelial network to supply the neighboring plants with bioavailable nitrogen. Plants form symbiotic relationships when they create carbohydrates via photosynthesis and transmit them to the microorganism in exchange for nitrogen.
You can increase the bioavailability of nitrogen in soil by pruning nitrogen-fixing trees. Trees then deliver nitrogen via leaf fall, chop and drop pruning, and root die back in the soil. When you prune the canopy of a tree, a corresponding amount of root matter will also decompose and create soil from underfoot. Planting nitrogen fixing trees is a vital practice for sustainable agriculture because the process of biological nitrogen fixation promotes soil fertility: a natural solution that eliminates the need to add synthetic fertilizers. Chopping and dropping leaves and wood from trees to build the detritus environment on the ground also provides prime habitat conditions for beneficial bacteria and fungi to colonize the area.
Do No Harm:
Never top or hat rack a tree or plant. When the top of the plant is removed by cutting the leader and terminal buds, unnatural and unsustainable lateral growth is inevitable and can cause disease and death in the tree. Do not take more than ⅓ of the crown of the tree, or the plant will not have enough leaves to acquire necessary nutrients through photosynthesis. When branches are partially pruned and left as stubs, or hat-racks, the stub is susceptible to infection or decay. A good pruning cut should be nearly undetectable and flush with the branch or trunk.
Today is the Spring Equinox, a sagacious time to visit the garden and be of service to new growth and fertility.
- Mollision, Bill (1988). Permaculture: A designer’s model. Tyalgum, NSW 2484, Australia: Tagari Publications
- Wollheben, Peter (2015). The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Greystone Books Ltd.