Andrea is a garden writer and horticulture extension agent. She is a formally educated ornamental horticulturalist, but has a personal passion deeply rooted in edible gardening.

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LESS REALLY IS MORE: Pruning Fruits and Vegetables to Increase Harvest
by Andrea Dee    

A little green thumb and a pair of pruners can go a long way in yielding a high quality harvest both in the veggie patch and fruit orchard. Pruning fruits and vegetables can be very beneficial in directing energy away from other plant parts towards the fruiting buds, leading to a more bountiful garden.

In their native setting the habit of most fruit and vegetable plants is to concentrate energy on growing foliage more so than flower production. Foliage serves an important purpose preforming like solar panels, collecting energy that supports the growth of all plant parts. Fruit’s main purpose is to provide a seed for reproduction, and most plants require a lot less fruit to serve that purpose than what satisfies a gardener's appetite. However an ambitious gardener can employ a little pruning skill and increase their yield.

Plant breeders have selected specific cultivators for many reasons, one being heavy production of quality fruit. Therefore variety selection is the first step in guaranteeing a full picking basket. Next would be healthy soils and healthy plants. When those details are in order, consider pruning fruits and vegetables in an effort to remove excess foliage and non-fruiting branches to blossom a bigger harvest, quite literally.

Pruning Vegetables
Vegetables like tomato, squash, pepper and cucurbits can benefit from pruning both excess foliage and flower buds. As plants mature and foliage becomes overly lush, select about one-third of the branches to remove throughout the growing season to re-direct plant energy towards flower buds. Removing some flower buds is okay; it will simply result in larger individual fruits from the remaining buds. Removing excess foliage will also allow sunlight to penetrate deeper into the plant's canopy ripening fruit quicker and more evenly.

When it comes to tomatoes, removing “sucker” growth in addition to thinning can result in better fruit yield. A sucker is a side shoot off of the main stem developing between the main stem and a leaf. Simply pinch back this growth as it appears, re-directing energy once supplied to the sucker growth towards the blossoms, which later produce tomato fruits. Additionally, some gardeners remove leaves from the base of the tomato plant to prevent the spread of fungal spores commonly splashed up from the soil. These spores show up as dark spots on the lower leaves and eventually spread upwards through splashing water from one leaf to the next.

Pruning Fruits
Pruning fruits annually will drastically increase berry and orchard fruit production. Since fruits are commonly perennial plants their natural growth habit can easily become dense. As they grow older, removing excess foliage can go a long way in maximizing yield.

Berries that benefit from pruning include blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and even strawberries. 

Blackberry plants are biennial, meaning their upright stems called canes live just two years. In the first year, a cane grows vigorously and stores energy. In the second year that stem produces fruit. After fruiting, that cane declines and should be cut back to the ground post harvest. The remaining canes will fruit the following season. Sometimes late in the growing season blackberry plants will need to be tipped back to their trellis height so their dense top foliage doesn't shade out the lower part of the cane prohibiting fruit set and ripening.

Most gardeners prefer fall-bearing raspberries because of their ease of pruning. Fall-bearing raspberries will fruit on one-year-old wood. When pruned to the ground in late winter they will start fruiting that same year in late summer through the fall. 

Blueberries require little pruning once established but do benefit from thinning cuts to allow sunlight to penetrate fully. Pruned blueberry plants should be narrow at the base, open in the center, and free of dead and diseased wood. 

Strawberries benefit from removal of their first year's blooms. Removing these blossoms sends energy back to the crown and increases root vigor, which helps young plants to establish better. As difficult as this is, pinch those initial pretty little white flowers off, aborting the potential for even a sampling of sweet homegrown berries that first year. However when this is done, the following year promises a much more bountiful berry patch.

Orchard fruits like peach, pear, cherry, apple, plum, apricot and pawpaw all can benefit from annual pruning. While each orchard fruit has its own specific recommendations, there are a few general tips that can help the most novice of gardeners become a better orchardman. Some of the basics include first removing all dead, diseased and damaged branches. Also prune out suckers sprouting from the tree's crown and water sprouts that grow vertically from horizontal branches. Both suckers and water sprouts produce unnecessary foliage and rob energy from more important plant parts. For your next pruning cuts think about the ability for sunlight to shine through the canopy and ripen fruit. Also, consider the ease of air to circulate through the canopy, which helps to dry foliage quickly reducing the spread of disease. The goals in pruning orchard fruit varies from ornamentals in that the production of high quality fruit takes precedence over aesthetics, leading to a somewhat sparse and open shape.

Branches smaller than your thumb can usually be pruned with a pair of pruners, while larger branches will require a loppers or pruning saw. By-pass type pruners and loppers, with one blade passing the other, are preferred since they make the cleanest cuts. Typically 20-30 percent of newly emerged branches in the canopy are removed during annual orchard pruning. Not only does this keep the canopy from becoming cluttered, but also reduces the potential fruit load. Consequently this makes the remaining fruit larger and higher quality due to the re-distribution of plant energy. Deciduous trees like orchard fruits should be pruned during dormancy, late winter preferably.

While plants thick with lush green foliage look very pretty and often appear most healthy in the garden, they do not guarantee the biggest basket full of homegrown food. A little pruning can go a long way in growing food over foliage. Less really can equal more when it comes to pruning fruit and vegetable plants.

 

 

A version of this article appeared in a previous print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Tomato sucker photo courtesy of Alan Pulley. All others by Andrea Dee.

 

Posted: 02/06/19   RSS | Print

 

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