Here is a system of avocado pruning that seems to be working for the grower. He has been keeping his 12 year old ‘Hass' planted on 16 x 16 to 8 feet high by pruning out center limbs each year. He leaves some to flower and fruit the next year, then removes those with the fruit once they pass maturity in January. The cost of the pruning and chipping is about the value of the fruit that is harvested off those limbs. On older trees that were planted in the 1970's are treated in a similar manner. The trees were scaffolded to 5 feet and once tamed, have been allowed to grow in a similar fashion as the 12 year old trees. Both tree ages are productive throughout the canopy. In the spring, the trees are size picked from the ground with picking poles and as necessary with short ladders. In the summer they are stripped. The key is yearly pruning. I have been somewhat disenchanted with this style in the past because the centers would fill up so fast. In this case, the trees are kept short to keep light throughout the tree and the yearly pruning keeps opening it up.
12 year old center pruned trees
Fruit hanging in the interior
40 year old, scaffolded then center pruned trees
Transpiration is essentially a function of the amount of leaves present. With no leaves, there is no transpiration and no water use. The extreme case is tree removal. If canopies are pruned there is reduced water use. The more canopy reduction, the more transpiration reduction. Most citrus produces terminal flowers, so there is also a reduction in yield, but there is also typically an increase in fruit size as competitive fruit growing points are removed. There is a balance between yield reduction and tree water use, but typically a 25% canopy reduction results in a 25% decrease in tree water use (Romero, 2006).
The severity of the drought will determine how drastic the canopy should be trimmed. The trees can be skeletonized so that only the main structural branches are left. The tree is whitewashed to prevent sunburn and the water is turned off. As the tree gradually leafs out, the water is gradually reapplied in small amounts. It's important to check soil moisture to make sure the tree do not get too much or too little water. The trees if pruned in the winter will often flower a year later in the spring, but normal production will often take three years for the trees to recover their previous yields.
Skeletonizing should first be practiced on orchards that are the poorest producing. In those areas that get too much wind and have lots of wind scarring or elevated water use, those areas that are most prone to frost damage, those areas that have been always problematic, such as fruit theft. In areas that are healthy and a new variety has been contemplated, this is the time to topwork and replace that old variety. In areas that have been poor producing from disease, this is the time to get rid of those trees.
Canopy sprays of kaolinite clay have shown some promise in reducing transpiration with negligible yield reduction (Skewes, 2013; Wright, 2000). If these are used, they should be done under the advisement of the packing house to make sure the clay can be removed in the packing house.
With a reduced canopy, there are often other benefits besides water reduction. There is better spray coverage for pest control. There is also reduced fertilizer use. New growth is normally coming from nutrients that are now being mined by a large root system and fertilizer applications can be significantly reduced or eliminated altogether for a year until fruit set recommences.
Kerns, D. and G. Wright. 2000. Protective and Yield Enhancement qualities of yield of kaolin on lemon. In: Eds. G. Wright and D. Kilby, AZ1178: "2000 Citrus and Deciduous Fruit and Nut Research Report," College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Arizona. http://extension.arizona.edu/sites/extension.arizona.edu/files/pubs/az1178_3.pdf
Skewes, M. 2013 Citrus Drought Survival and Recovery Trial. HAL Project Number CT08014 (16/12/2013). SARDI. http://pir.sa.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/238414/SARDI-Citrus-Drought-Survival-Recovery-Trial.pdf
Navel trees skelotinized and topworked, ready for rain and more profits in the future.
A recent trip to Spain was an opportunity to look at their cherimoya production practices. One of the most interesting is their ability to manage the tree through pruning to produce fruit off-season (in spring) when the prices are the highest. IN California our low period of production is in the summer. The climate in Spain along the Mediterranean coast is warmer and more humid than coastal California, so most tree crops are about two months advanced in their production. So in the text I refer to a period when something is done and then follow it with another date. The one in parenthesis is the probable time in California if the date in Spain is used. So, to produce fruit in spring (summer) in March/April when prices are high:
Remove all shoots from the previous year in March (May)
With the new shoots, prune them back 6 inches in length around July 15 (September 15)
Pollinate the flowers that are produced in the period of August to September (Sept/Nov)
Pick fruit in March/April (June/Aug)
Fruit is produced when prices are higher
Generally fewer seeds than at other periods
In some cases there is higher sugar content in the off-season frui
Not always consistent with all cultivars
Off-season fruit often has black spots in the pulp
May see increased leaf drop
In some cultivars, the skin is more prone to abrasion, and this is already a very delicate fruit
There are other fruit species that fruiting date can be manipulated by pruning, such as evergreen blueberries, guava, lime, mango and carambola (star fruit). Always it is to find a better market for the fruit.
A general rule of thumb about pruning trees is that only healthy trees should be pruned. Pruning is a devitalizing practice that comes at the expense of the roots. If an avocado has root rot, make sure the tree has been treated with one of the phosphite products to get the root system healthy. A common pruning method is stumping to 3 feet and allowing regrowth to occur. A common phenomenon after stumping is that the tree puts on vigorous growth for two or three years and then collapses. All that canopy regrowth was coming from a large root system that was brought into balance with a smaller canopy. Energy is diverted from the root to fight off disease. Gradually the root system gets out of balance with a larger canopy that it can no longer support. Often when a severely impaired root system tree is pruned, it often does not have energy to push a new canopy and the tree dies. Make sure you only prune healthy trees.
In the past avocados were rarely pruned. In fact, if the trees got very big, growers would stump them down to 3-4 feet and then let them regrow. This would often be a disaster, since the trees rapidly grew to stupendous sizes again. They also might regrow then suddenly collapse, because all that regrowth was coming at the expense of energy being sent to the roots. If the roots were compromised by root rot, they would then not have the energy to fend off the disease. So by bringing the canopy into balance with a sick root system that was continuing to die and was not being fed by a big canopy, the root death would accelerate and when the canopy and root system became imbalanced again, the whole canopy would collapse and the tree would die.
Also, this wild regrowth was wild and hard to manage. The adage of “prune avocado trees cautiously” was heard round the avocado community and as a result many growers would not do anything. The trees growing larger and larger and larger with the fruiting canopy going higher and higher and higher and picking costs and liability going up. Tree thinning was practiced, where every other tree would be removed so that light could penetrate into the orchard, encouraging more fruit production and slowing tree growth. But they would still grow and another thinning would be needed. The original commercial ‘Hass’ orchard in Carpinteria started out in 1954 with 140 trees and 40 years later was down to 17 trees and was still productive, but they were monsters that were finally felled by root rot.
Many commercial avocados are now routinely pruned to keep the trees short, so that harvesting costs and other tree maintenance expenses are reduced. Also more light shines into the trees, so that more fruit is borne on the lower branches. Light or minor pruning can be done any time of year to correct imbalances or limb breakages. However, major or heavy pruning should only be done in the early part of the year from January through April. Avocados flower and bear fruit at stem terminals, so if you give the tree and buzz cut (heading cuts), all the flower terminals will be cut off and there will be no flowering the following year. It also leads to an explosion of water sprouts that result from bud break up and down the branch because the terminal bud which control the buds lower down have been removed. Naphthalene acetic acid (TreeHold) painted on the cut end can be used to restrict some of this wild bud break.
Whenever possible, thinning cuts should be made, where the branch is removed back to a subtending branch. This results in much less wild growth. Also when there are buds that start growing into water sprouts, they can be nipped back to force lateral growth. These laterals will then slow down the growth of the sprout and the side terminal buds will also be able to grow and transition of flower buds later.
Work in Carol Lovatt’s lab at UCR has shown that terminal buds need a certain maturity to flower and the transition from a vegetative bud to a flowering bud occurs sometime in late summer/early fall. If pruning is done in July, there is not enough time for the new buds to mature by August and there will be no flowers from that branch the following spring. New vegetative buds formed on growth from spring will often have enough maturation time to make the transition to flower buds, resulting in flowering the next spring.
Again, light pruning can be done at any time of the year, but removing terminals is removing potential fruiting wood. Therefore, if heavy pruning is needed, it is best to remove one branch at a time. To reduce the height of a tree, cut out the tallest branch one year, the next tallest branch the following year, and so on until the tree is down to the height required. The process may take three to four years. By reducing the height over several years, the tree is put under less stress, less disease is likely to occur and fruit production is not drastically reduced. Pruning the sides of the tree should be done in the same way. Prune off a side branch that most impinges on a neighboring tree one year, then the next worst offender in the second year, and over the years continue this process until there is light all around the tree.
If pruning creates major open areas in the tree to sun-light where there once was shade, the exposed branches should be painted with white latex paint diluted with water so that it can be sprayed on. It needs to be white enough that it can reflect sunlight and avoid heat damage that can cause sunburn. Sunburn can utterly destroy all the work that has been done.
If the trees are really monsters, the only real alternative is to bring the whole tree down. But not stumping, rather scaffolding where much of the structure is maintained. This is where the tree is brought down to as high a height as is convenient and safe. By cutting the tree to a height of 8 feet or so, there is not so much rank regrowth because a greater portion of the tree is retained. Also many times there are leafy branches that remain that will flower and fruit and slow the wild regrowth. Water sprouts that form should be headed back to force lateral growth that encourages stems that will flower, which will also slow the wild regrowth.
And one last warning. Do not. Do not. Do not. Got it? Prune sick trees. If the roots are compromised, the regrowth is going to be hard on the roots. Get the trees perked up with one of the phophite products so that they are ready to go through this process. You may have to wait a couple years to start the pruning process until the trees are in shape for the rigors.
Image: Don't make cuts like this.