Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Pruning our old overgrown quince tree


As I reported in a previous post, last year’s quince harvest was a disaster.  The tree was sick – I suspect with a fungal infection called Monilinia, which causes fruit to rot and mummify.  Now it is winter and the leaves are down, the extent of the damage can be seen very easily: bearing in mind I have already picked up probably 100 rotted or mummified fruit from the ground, the number still left on the tree is pretty staggering.

As you can imagine I’ve been doing a lot of reading on fungal infections of fruit trees and what to do about them.  My resulting plan is:
  • Remove all infected fruit and leaves from the tree (in retrospect I can remember seeing some mummified fruit on the tree when we moved in last year).
  • Prune the tree to ensure good air circulation and light penetration – in particular by creating a “vase” shape with a clear centre so air and light can penetrate (fungus loves damp conditions and we had a fairly damp summer in between the gorgeous spring and autumn)
  • Water the tree in dry spells to ensure it doesn’t get stressed (I failed to do this during a very dry spring last year: need to buy a longer hose, assuming we manage to avoid a hosepipe ban!)
  • Feed the tree in spring: again to ensure good general health which will help the tree recover from the pruning and withstand infection (guess what, I didn't do this last year either...).
So the first step is to prune out the diseased material.  The tree is pretty large (must be around 20ft high) – so we needed a range of tools:
This was hard work and took most of an afternoon.  First we used the hook on the end of the telescopic pruners to grab various of the tall branches and shake out whatever fruit would fall naturally.  This got rid of quite a good number of the rotten fruit – maybe half – and was kind of fun, with the MOTH and me dancing around trying to dodge the little grizzly plummeting mummies (there’s a sentence may never have appeared in print...)

After that we decided to take out a couple of larger branches.  I am nervous about doing this: I know that it can shock the tree, and that if you remove too much old wood the tree can just chuck up lots of dense new shoots, which is not what we’re looking for.  On the other hand, even the basic heavy framework of the tree is extremely dense, with many of the old branches growing alongside, across and even into each other.  So we identified a couple of branches that really were just “duplicating” other parts of the large branch framework and also a couple that were heading into the centre of the tree, turning what appears to have originally been a “vase” shape into very dense coverage all over.  We were careful to ensure that the cuts were clean, against the collar of growth and sloping to ensure that water doesn’t gather.  The drawing below shows the types of larger branches that we took out in cross-section (of course, in real life what we’ve taken out is a much smaller portion of the total than the drawing suggests!)
There are a few more duplicative and central branches that it might be better without, but I’ve read that renovating an old fruit tree is best done over several years (the RHS recommends removing no more than a quarter of the canopy in one year), so we will wait until next year to take out any more large branches.
We then took out some smaller duplicative branches with the long handled loper.  This is an amazing tool: very easy to use, effective up to a quite chunky branch size, and also really handy for chopping up the removed branches into an easier size for disposal.  It bridges the gap between secateurs and a saw very well.

Finally we used the secateurs (on a ladder) and telescopic pruner to snip out as much of the remaining mummified fruit as we could, as well as thinning out the smaller growth a little.  This was hard work.  It turns out that trying to manipulate a 12 foot long pole using one hand above head level is quite tiring.  Phew.  Anyway, we got most of the way there, and helped by a windy night the following week, the tree was pretty nearly empty of dead fruit and leaves and had a nice clear gap through the middle for air and light to get in. 

We followed this up later with another round of the long-handled pruners to thin out some of the denser thin twiggy growth and get rid of the few remaining dead fruit ... and hopefully left the tree in a better state to handle the year ahead.

I am keeping everything crossed that the tree survives the trauma – I love it so much, and suspect it is pretty old (my neighbour told me it was already fully grown when she moved in 24 years ago...).  I would hate it to die “on my watch”.  It is definitely in line for a lot of food, water and general TLC this year, in the hope that I can give it a few more years of happy life yet.

20 comments:

  1. Fingers crossed. Hope the tree responds to all the TLC that you've bestowed on it.

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  2. Thanks! I'm not sure it will feel loved at the moment ... it might feel more hacked-about (and there is still one manky fruit and 2 leaves I am determined to get!! becoming a little obsessive here ...) - but it is definitely going to get plenty of TLC this year.

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  3. Thank you for this helpful post! I'm planting a new quince tree this year and the thought of lots of fungus and mummified fruit is kind of scaring me... but hopefully I'll keep the tree pruned right from the start to avoid problems. I do love quince and it's so hard to find in stores here.

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  4. It sounds as if you have done your research. It does look like it needs a bit of a haircut. Many of my trees are very young, and I have not needed to give them a pruning. Good luck!

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  5. Well, hopefully you have about 30 years to go before you have to worry about this :o)

    I have tried to do lots of reading. I suspect I have under rather than overpruned, but it's easier to cut more next year than to try to put some back I guess!

    Thanks for the good luck wishes...

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  6. The whole process was very well researched and interesting in execution but what I liked the best was your drawings of the equipment---so cute.

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  7. Thank you! Hopefully it did more good than harm (and not more harm than good, as I originally wrote!!)

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  8. Well if ever a tree deserved recovery this is the one. It must indeed be very old, I am so used to seeing Quince just growing against a wall as a short climber.

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    1. Thanks! I do suspect it might be quite ancient. It's much bigger than you usually see them (although I just Googled quinces, and their mature size does seem to be 20ft high by 15ft across, which is about what ours is) - but the same site says they only fruit for about 30 years, so I hope that mine is going to do a bit better than that!

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    2. I was researching what to do about a very large quince tree in a local community centre which is how I came across this interesting page. "Our" quince must be 80-100 years old and is still fruiting. It's in desperate need of proper pruning though, and I'm worried that the proposed "pruning" of it to improve its shape now in late July won't be the best thing for it! Any comment please?

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  9. What a treasure (the tree that is) and it sounds like a textbook RHS pruning!It will be interesting to see how it performs this year. Ours is too small to need very much of anything (except a good talking too).

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    1. Thanks! I have tried the talking to thing, but it didn't seem to do very much ... :o)

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  10. Excellent tutorial... I must admit, I'm not too excited about doing this yet. You certainly know how to do it right.

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    1. Thank you! I hope it works. I believe it's what they call "learning by doing" (or misdoing, as the case may be ... we'll see!)

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  11. Hope it does well for you. Having just read your more recent post I can see a theme here, lots of spring pruning.

    Im sure your garden will look great, and im looking forward to seeing how it comes together.

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    1. Errr... yes, it does appear to be a trend. I *think* there is only one more chopping things down post to come, and then it is all going to be planting things, honest!!

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    1. Pretty good! We've just had a very wet April, which I think it is enjoying. I suspect there may be fewer fruit this year, as the rain has probably kept some of the pollinators away. But that may be no bad thing - give it a bit of a breather...

      But certainly no signs that it minded the pruning so far - touch wood!!

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  13. Thanks for posting this. I have a very old diseased quince tree and have been too scared to prune it in case I kill it. My neighbour has now decided that the disease has spread to his cotoneaster (but I think it is a completely seperate issue) so I am being pressurised into pruning. Your simple explanation (and shared fears) have given me a little more confidence.

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