Thursday, January 24, 2013

Winter Pruning: A Journey to California Pruning Peach Trees


One of the most challenging yet exciting parts of farming without your own land is figuring out your next step.  What do I want to learn and where do I want to learn how to do it?  At this rather early stage in my farming career, stability can still take a backseat to opportunity and exploration.  The goal is to have my carrots and eat them too, but while searching for that balance, there are many roads to travel, some of which happen to be in California.  Christmas marked the end of my season with Barbara and Eliot, at Four Season Farm and I booked a ticket to California.  I started up in the foothills of the Sierras, down through the valley of Sacramento and west along the Pacific coast, I encountered a variety of farms and lifestyles.  Every farm is different, every farmer has a different philosophy and every two hours I experienced a different climate.  Farming and good food have been staples in California for many years and although the majority of our country's conventional food production is found in the Central Valley, some of the longest running organic farms and farmers can be tracked down not to far away.  Locally sourced food isn't as much of a gimmick as it is a lifestyle here in California, but maybe that's because you can grow 12 months of the year without too much additional infrastructure.  In the northeast, we have a long way to go to catch up, but with greenhouse technologies and places like Four Season Farm and Stone Barns developing and sharing simple, applicable, four season farming practices to this ever-growing population of interested and active eaters, we are well on our way.  Today we are going to narrow this trip down and focus on one fascinating...

day pruning peach trees at Soil Born Farms.

Midwestern America
A plane not meant for the legs of a 6'3'' basketball player
An incredibly inspiring urban agriculture project, Soil Born Farms aims to bring the culture, flavor and understanding of organic, sustainable agriculture to the surrounding urban environment.  Through fundraising, private donations and agreements with local municipalities, this farm and education center has been running in various capacities for about 13 years.  Starting small on a few acres in the citycenter, they've expanded and developed to lease over 50 acres right along the S.

As for the peaches...

Pruning peach trees, like every other agriculture practice, has many theories, but they all offer a blend of basic horticultural principles and a creative farmer's vision.

In this system, winter pruning is integral to summer growth and eventually fall harvest.  Pruning helps focus the tree's energy, preparing and stimulating the areas we want peaches, while reducing the potentially inhibiting, superfluous growth and deadwood.  We began by removing all the deadwood, the greyish/brown lifeless branches.  We then moved on to trimming the second-year growth, the vibrant redish/brown branches with living buds.  

While hesitant to dive into pruning these trees myself, Antonio, the Farm Manager and my orchard guru for the day, broke it down in such a simple way that my entire perception of this tree transformed.  

Pruning has several purposes including:
  1. To remove unnecessary and crowding branches and provide a solid structure
  2. To remove diseased areas that may perpetuate problems such as the infamous leaf curl
  3. To shape the tree for easier harvest
  4. To stimulate specific areas of new growth
  5. To feed the tree a sufficient and efficient amount of sunlight
It was this last principle that really stuck with me.  The tree is depending on the sun for a large portion of it's food source, therefore any crowding causes competition for food.


Each orchard will have a different style, but Antonio was shooting for a bowl type or baseball mit, as he described it.  This mit shape is used to catch a "ball" of sunlight.  Any inward facing branches or buds were removed. 

If you have a massive tree with fruit 25 feet in the air, it is going to take a lot of time and labor to climb up and down.  Labor, as we know, is the greatest cost to a farm operation, so any opportunity to decrease the amount of labor or time needed is a bonus.  Prune properly you can create a much more efficient harvest system.

As you can see in the picture above, each bump along the branch is a bud that will fruit.  Whichever direction a bud is jutting out, is the direction that fruit will be produced.  We wanted to prune each branch to an outward facing bud.

Nothing lasts forever
You can always make adjustments during the summer.  Making time to observe your trees throughout their fruiting season is integral to the tree's success.  If some branches create too much shade, trim them back in the summer

If you prune too much, all is not lost, just give it time and eventually new growth will come in and you can restructure the tree.

It's important to cut on an angle, above the outward facing bud.  This ensures stability for this new growth.  Cut too low and you may lose this fruiting branch.

Cutting straight leaves the branch more susceptible to water settling and possible disease and mold. So we anticipate where the tree will develop in the summer and train it to be more open and strong.

As you can see below, these small trees have produced many branches.  

Better foundation early on leads to less disease, more efficient harvest and better fruit in the longterm.  

If you hold on too tightly to what you "know," you may impede your own progress.  If you hold on too tightly to what you "know," you may miss what the land is giving you.


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