Proper Pruning for Prolific Production

Late winter, when fruit trees are dormant, is a great time to prune. We “sat down” with Paris Yates, Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Urban Food Systems (UFS) Program Coordinator (and arborist) to discuss proper pruning techniques so you can ensure your trees are healthy and productive this year.

Tell us about the fruit trees on Seattle’s public lands.

UFS Program Coordinator and Arborist Paris Yates

The Urban Food Systems Program manages all fruit trees located on Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) managed municipal property. These properties include parks, natural areas, P-Patch’s, urban farms, and community gardens. As of January 2021, UFS has identified 721 fruit trees at SPR locations throughout Seattle. The fruit trees identified in our collection are mature trees that produce fruit. UFS has identified these trees over the past seven years and we anticipate adding more in the coming years. UFS added 200 trees to our collection in 2020 and anticipate adding at least that many or more in 2021.

That’s a lot of trees! Do you care for them by yourself?

UFS utilizes a network of internal and external partnerships to implement the maintenance associated with fruit trees. Our internal maintenance partners at SPR include the Tree Crew, Specialty Gardens Landscape Crew, and the Jefferson Horticulture Facility’s Greenhouse Management Team. We also partner with our Green Seattle Partnership team and the citywide Maintenance District Crews. UFS’s external partners consists of local nonprofit organizations, Friends of Parks groups, and individual volunteers who are passionate about fruit trees. Some nonprofits and Friends groups include InterIm CDA, City Fruit, Hip Hop is Green, Friends of Piper’s Orchard, and BeetBox just to name a few.

When do you prune and why?

UFS implements a Total Fruit Tree Care Framework that is based on seasonal tree care maintenance. The best time for most fruit tree pruning is during the winter months of January, February, and March. Most fruit trees are deciduous and go into a ‘dormancy’ during the winter. This slowing of the rise and fall of fluids in the tree makes it an optimal time to prune for tree health and structure. Removing dead, dying, and decaying wood from the tree is essential for maintaining overall tree health and vitality. Pruning for form and structure helps promote optimal growing conditions and quality fruit production.

How do you prune a tree?

There are three basic principles UFS follows regarding tree pruning:

  1. Remove small branches or “thin” to allow air and light to move through the tree and reach all branches,
  2. Remove all dead, dying, and decaying wood on tree branches, and
  3. Prune branches or ‘head back” for optimal fruit production.

Thinning and removing dead wood are basic techniques used in pruning most trees. The unique technique associated with fruit trees is called “heading back.” This technique removes the outermost growth of the trees to make the branches short and thick opposed to long and thin. This keeps the branches from breaking under the weight of fruit and stimulates growth hormones in the tree’s lower canopy that promotes quality fruit production. Routine annual pruning also helps manage disease and pests associated with fruit trees.

What resources are available for residents in Seattle who want to learn more?

We live in the Google age and there are countless resources regarding fruit tree maintenance at the touch of a smart device. All UFS tree maintenance is guided by International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) standards and practices. We have also developed a Total Fruit Tree Care Maintenance Framework. We also publish a monthly newsletter filled with fruit tree care tips that you can sign up for at the Urban Food Systems Program website.

Thinking ahead to when the fruit ripens, what do you want folks to know?

I want people to know that Seattle is home to one of the most extensive municipal fruit tree systems in the nation. Most large municipalities do not have citywide orchard systems like we do in Seattle. And maintaining these public assets is important for the health and resilience of our residents. Everyone in the city needs access to healthy and nutritious food. BIPOC and low-income resident’s struggling with food insecurity has become more of an issue due to the COVID 19 pandemic and UFS is committed to helping people access healthy food during this time. 

If people have questions, who can they contact?

Feel free to contact paris.yates@seattle.gov.

This article was a collaboration between Paris Yates (UFS Program Coordinator and Arborist) and Todd Burley (Sustainability Advisor).