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Fresh Facts 14: The Tree Surgeon

By December 11, 2016Fresh Facts, Newsletter

The big job on a peach farm all winter is pruning, so let’s spend some time on this most important cultural practice because you never know when you might want to be a peach farmer. First off, there are two types of pruning: summer and winter. Summer pruning is about managing the light environment or more simply removing enough shade so next year’s buds will be fruitful but not so much as to sunburn and damage the older supporting scaffolds. I could teach you the fundamentals of how to do that job in 15-20 minutes (how to efficiently set your ladder and stuff might take you a week to figure out). The main concept is that only buds in the sun around the first part of July will make fruit next year so we remove unproductive competition for light; maximum production from an acre of peach trees is about maximum utilization of an acre’s worth of sunlight.

Winter pruning conversely would take me several days in each commodity–peach, nectarine, plum, and apricot—if you were motivated to get the concept, you would start to get good the second year and if you stuck with it and stayed through thinning and harvest to observe the results of your labor; by the third year, you could be an asset to the company. We can’t train more than a couple new guys a season and work really hard to keep our regular crew happy; that knowledge base is foundational to our success and we have several men who have been contributing more than 30 years.

Watching a skilled pruner transform an unruly disheveled tree into one ready to work in about 15 minutes is a marvel; no wasted effort or movement. Solomon said: “See a man skilled at his work? He won’t go unnoticed, he’ll stand before kings.”

So let me transport you into the mind of a peach tree pruner and experience the process through his eyes and hands. For proper respect, we’ll call him a horticultural surgeon. His tools are a pair of 32” Malaga bypass shears trademarked: La Buena®. (I don’t know what we’ll do when the owner retires. You can only buy them from his little shop in Fowler and at least 80% of the trees in our industry know the feel of this blade.) While the company provides the shears, his name is on the aircraft aluminum handle and you could shave with the blade.

Our surgeon’s other tool also has his name on it. It’s a 9’4’’ Strathmore® ladder with 10” steps. Strathmore custom makes them for me and to my knowledge, The Peterson Family is the only company that uses a 10” step. UC Davis did a study I read showing a 10” step reduces knee fatigue versus a 12”. It took some getting used to, but I think there’re only 2 men that still prefer the 12”.

There are about 3 steps between trees and in those 3 seconds, he has evaluated the potential of the tree, the angle of the branches, and the perfect ladder placement to be able to prune 2 limbs with one set. He starts at the bottom and deftly removes any dead wood. The best fruit will be on strong wood closest to the main scaffolds. In the orientation meeting at the start of this orchard, management indicated that 25 hangars per scaffold was the target for this variety. He then removes all but those 25 best fruiting branches leaving them separate and staggered for maximum light utilization. Some branches that didn’t make the best 25 but are in good potential position are left with a bud or two to hopefully utilize that area of the tree next year.

When he reaches the top, the crown cut is very important. You want to leave a strong branch that can carry a good load and utilize that apical energy for production. If not, you will have a mess of sucker growth. I can tell driving by at 70 mph whether a crew knew what they were doing by how they terminated the crown. Making a slight pivot, our surgeon moves to the top of the next branch and reverses the process to the bottom.

What he’s just done is adjust the potential crop load to the potential of the tree like a good parent or teacher does with a child. Not all of our children have the same abilities, but each of us can utilize the light we receive to the maximum of our potential, blessing the world around us with the best fruit we can grow. Personally in my life, I like the blessing the world part better than the getting pruned back part.

Author Uncle Vern

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