Spring is for pinching. Nothing to do with Saint Patrick’s Day, this is using your fingers to prune. In the spring, trees are growing new branches that are succulent and easily snapped off by hand: no tools required.
But why pinch? And what and where to pinch? First let me show you how to do it right, and then I’ll show you how I did it wrong on one tree last year.
What’s the use of pinching? The uses are many, but one of the best is in order to shape young fruit trees, especially certain kinds like apples, pears, plums, pluots, peaches, nectarines, and cherries. An example of one tree I’ve pinched over the past few weeks is this Flavor Grenade pluot:
Left alone, this tree would grow long new branches that don’t form many side branches.
I don’t want this. I want to form this tree the way I’ve formed many of my other fruit trees, which is to say, I want to keep it small. Here’s my old but small nectarine tree; this is what I’m aiming for:
An abundance of fruit within arm’s reach. For more on why you might like to keep a fruit tree small, see my post “My best advice on pruning deciduous fruit trees: Keep them small.”
How to pinch
So what I need to do is force these new spring branches to make side branches instead of just growing long and straight as they naturally would. All that requires is pinching off the tip of a new branch just above a bud, and almost immediately the tree will begin growing out the couple buds below the pinch, that is, it will make side branches, branches that grow in different directions.
I usually pinch branch tips at a distance of one to two feet from where the branch emanates from a larger branch or trunk below; at one to two feet is where I want the branch to split into side branches. The result of the pinch is often like that in the photo above: two buds grow, forming a Y shape. Sometimes, three or more buds below the pinch will grow out. Rarely, the pinch isn’t effective, and only one bud is activated.
What if I don’t pinch?
Pinching saves time. If you don’t pinch, and you let branches keep growing long and straight all spring and summer, then you’ve essentially lost a year’s time if you want to keep the tree small. This is what happened to my Royal Crimson cherry tree last year.
I somehow forgot to pinch or prune it all spring and summer last year so it grew branches about three feet long with zero side branching. This past winter I had to cut the branches back to about one foot long in order to induce side branching at that point.
As I said, missing the spring pinching opportunity (and summer pruning opportunity using shears) meant that I lost time in structuring this tree and also getting it to bear fruit as early as possible in the places that I want it to bear fruit.
In comparison, look at the size and structure of the Lapins cherry tree that I planted next to the Royal Crimson cherry tree on the same day. I planted both in January of 2018, and here they are today:
Last spring and summer, I took care to shape the Lapins cherry tree on the left, and now it is bushier and bigger and will likely bear fruit earlier at the height I desire.
This is the advantage that can be gained by pinching to shape a young tree on time. Don’t let this spring — and your young fruit trees — get away from you.
You might also like to read my other posts about pruning deciduous fruit trees: