During all those above average warm days in December and early January everybody wanted to prune their fruit trees. It was too early then but now the proper time is near. February is generally the last month of what is known as the winter dormant season in Mississippi. This dormant period is the best time for gardeners to do their pruning chores on fruit trees before new growth begins.

For fruiting trees and vines, pruning is an annual maintenance chore that should be done for several reasons. Proper pruning removes unwanted "suckers" or excessive growth on inside of the main branches, removes crisscrossed branches, removes dead or diseased branches, thins the fruit buds, and shapes the tree/shrub/vine for maximum fruiting.

The only fruiting plant that you do not prune now is blueberry. Blueberries are pruned immediately after their harvest season is over. If you need to prune blackberries or raspberries, remove only the canes that bore fruit last year.

Pruning can be done on grape vines (including muscadines) anytime from February through early March. This is the best time of year to prevent excessive sap flow from the main trunk. Grapes are usually cut back pretty severely every year. They are trained to 2 - 4 long trailing main vines (called cordons), and several clusters of 3 - 4 fruiting buds spaced about every 8-12 inches apart.

Deciding which limbs to remove from fruit trees depends on the type of tree. For trees like peaches and plums, the most common pruning method is an "open-center." Think of the desired branching structure as an umbrella that has been turned inside-out by the wind. The main branches arch outward at about a 40-degree angle from the main trunk. This allows full sunlight to get into the center of the tree canopy.

Full sun exposure makes the fruit produce more sugar and therefore sweeter fruit. Sometimes smaller lateral branches attached to the main trunk may also need to be tip pruned, if it looks like they may overlap and cause too much shading. Prune sets of branches on individual limbs so that they grow out and upward and are separated to allow sun penetration inside the canopy of summer foliage.

Apples and pears have a different type of natural branching shape. They are generally pruned to produce a "scaffold" shape. Think of the main trunk as the center post with branches stretched out at nearly right angles to it.

Removing inside sucker growth is the same for all fruit trees, and so is shaping the fruiting branch tips for maximum sunlight. The difference for apple and pear is the position of the main branches, which are set in tiers about one and one-half to two feet apart up the trunk. Choose only two or three strong (scaffold) branches to leave growing at each level (tier), and remember that each scaffold is like its own set of fan blades so avoid overlap and shade competition.

Any new branches that grow out during the growing season in the wrong direction i.e. either down toward the ground (too much shade and mowing hazard), or straight up in the middle (competing with the central trunk leader), should be pruned out then.

While you are pruning, inspect trees carefully for scale insects. These insects can be controlled with a winter dormant oil product. It is also a good time to manage foliar diseases such as peach leaf curl with dormant applications of liquid lime-sulfur.

Proper pruning of fruits and fruiting vines on an annual basis will promote good fruit production and prevent problems down the road. Rejuvenating neglected fruiting trees and vines is a chore no person should ever have to do! For more information on pruning, contact your local Mississippi State University Extension Service office.