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Tending Seeds Transcript - Episode 30

Pruning Fruit Trees with Aimi Hamraie

Sara Schuster  0:08  
This is Tending Seeds, a podcast about my adventures and homesteading and herbalism. I'm Sara Schuster, and I'll be your host. Thanks for being here today. Hey friends, I hope this is finding you well, fall is in full swing here. Now the leaves are beginning to change on the trees. Everything is beautiful this weather's incredible. Still bringing in lots of herbs from the farm. The vegetable garden has pretty much died down that we still have some tomatoes and some okra plants that are hanging on, got some kale on the ground, have a lot of false seedlings that are going to be ready to transplant out here in the next week or so. Yeah, lots going on lots of good positive things happening here. I really love this time of year, don't you? So today I have another interview for you. And this one is going to be focused on pruning your fruit trees. Lots of really great information in here. I'm so excited to be sharing more interviews with y'all. I have quite a few lined up for the next couple of months through the rest of fall and into the start of winter. We'll still be doing solo episodes still reporting in and checking in from here on the farm and doing some home setting and herbal topics on my own as well. But yeah, I'm so excited to be starting to share some of these interviews and really just grateful for the guests that are coming on. And I really hope that you enjoy this one. So without further ado, we're gonna get started.

Aimi Hamraie is a permaculture designer and herbalist in training. They live and work on the original homelands of the Cherokee, Shawnee, Chickasaw and Yuchi peoples also known as Nashville, Tennessee. Amy trained in permaculture with Starhawk's Earth Activist Training. Their permaculture and gardening practices also draw knowledge about soil, seed saving, and food forestry, from family members who farmed in northern Iran for many generations. Amy is also a co founding member of the Nashville Disability Justice Collective, and the Nashville Mutual Aid Collective. In their day job. Aimi is an accessibility researcher at Vanderbilt University. Aimi, thanks so much for being here today. I'm excited to talk to you.

Aimi Hamraie  2:22  
Thanks so much for having me, Sara.

Sara Schuster  2:24  
Yeah. So I wonder if as we get started, if you could maybe just talk and describe a little bit for us about your own garden, and maybe some of the fruit trees that you have there.

Aimi Hamraie  2:35  
Sure. Um, so I live in a typical kind of urban parcel on in Nashville, I think it's about an eighth of an acre, so it's not very big. And when I moved here in 2015, so about five and a half years ago, this lot, pretty much the only plants that were here were grass and two shrubs. And during that time, I've worked pretty hard to replace the grass with gardens with perennial gardens and with fruit trees. So there's kind of a mix of different plants that make up the different layers of like the canopy and the food forest. There are a number of regular sized and dwarf sized fruit trees. So I've got a bunch of different kinds of peaches, and kind of like a native plum, and native red plum and also Damson plum, and I have a fig tree and persimmons. And then with those there on the berries, and blackberries and elderberries, and then kind of like lower, like Florida ground fruits of strawberries. And so they all sort of live together in various configurations. And they are all at the age now where they're fully producing. So there's quite a bit of fruit that gets produced in a staggered way throughout the season.

Sara Schuster  4:08  
That's so exciting. And I have been fortunate enough to get to see your gardens and just how incredible they are, and just how lush and diverse and also, I've seen here before, you know photos of what everything looked like before you started, you know, working to build up, you know, the soil as well as just all the plantings around your house. And it's really incredible the amount that you've been able to transform that land in just a few short years.

Aimi Hamraie  4:36  
Thanks. Yeah, I mean, really, soil building is the biggest part of it. Because as you know, we have this Middle Tennessee clay soil that's right on top of some limestone. So there's typically a lot of soil here. And it was by introducing a lot of organic material into the soil that all these trees started growing. So one of the most shocking kind of before and afters for me when I look at photos of the garden from year to year was between year two and year three, which was when I added like a whole bunch of woodchips around the peach trees and they just quadrupled in size, they grew a lot faster than I was expecting them to. So a whole area got shaded, that used to actually be like a sunny veggie patch. So I had to move my veggies.

Sara Schuster  5:28  
That's really incredible. Yeah, the right soil. And I mentioned even just something as simple as wood wood mulch can make such a huge difference. So kind of jumping into our topic for today. I was so happy when you responded to my request, I was looking at Instagram for someone to talk to about pruning fruit trees, because this is something I think a lot of new homesteaders and gardeners often feel a little like trepidatious about. And so really wanting to bring someone on who has had great experience and you know results doing this. So just as we jump in, like when is the best time to think about pruning your fruit trees?

Aimi Hamraie  6:06  
So it will depend on what zone you're in. But the thing that you're looking for is for the tree to be dormant. And for the for the weather to be dry. So you don't want to do it, you know, right when the leaves fall off of the trees, you want to wait until the sap isn't flowing. And you can test that by scratching the bark, or just waiting a couple months kind of into the depths of winter. But you also don't want to do it during the rainy season. Because what you're doing when you prune is essentially like doing surgery, it's more than just giving a tree a haircut like you're you're creating wounds in the bark. So you want to make sure that you prune trees at a time when they won't not heal their wounds effectively, which is what would happen if the sap was still flowing might flow out. And you also don't want them to get like fungal diseases from the rain. So here in Nashville, I prune my fruit trees in the late winter before they start to bug out. And you know, you can you can tell when they're going to bug out sometimes it'll just happen unexpectedly. Like if if like the weather is weird and off, we had a couple of very warm winters when it was hard to tell what exactly the right time would be. But you you can you can like have a general sense of it by just testing like scratching the park and seeing if the sap is flowing underneath.

Sara Schuster  7:42  
Okay, perfect. Yeah, I think you and that's such a great point about the fact that printing is, you know, because you're printing living material that that's, that's still part of living part of the plant. And so making sure especially, you know, avoiding fungal issues, like you mentioned, is so huge. I mean, our winter here last year felt like four months of rain pretty much. And so that would have been a really big concern. So why do we prune our trees as opposed to just leaving them alone.

Aimi Hamraie  8:11  
So there are a couple of reasons. One is that you are trying to introduce light and air into the tree canopy in order for, you know, things to dry out and get enough sun, which does prevent diseases and it also helps your fruits grow and ripen. So if you have a very bushy tree canopy, you're going to get a lot of tiny little fruits, but they're not going to ripen and they're not going to taste good because they won't get the sun to ripen them. And also if you have a situation where the tree canopy is really bushy, a lot of the trees energy is going toward growing all of these extra branches that often are like criss crossing and turning towards the middle of the canopy. And that's energy that can go into the production of fruit. And then in addition to that productivity stuff, like sometimes, you know, when branches are crossing over each other, it encourages pass to make homes there are egregious birds to build nests, things that you may not want in your tree and there are some consequences to not pruning, like, you know, if you get some sort of like fungal disease or a past you could just like lose all of your crop for the year. So it's just part of like the general maintenance, it's kind of like clipping your nails. You know, if you don't do it like your hands will get really gross. Or if you don't do it, your nail could break and that can hurt you and in a similar way not planning your fruit trees could mean that like, you know, a limb breaks and it leaves like a really big irrepairable scar on the tree or something like that. Definitely like It, it is a human intervention, though, it's not, when you see how a tree tends to grow all of its growth is kind of like, toward the middle and, and you know, we're kind of stepping in to take care of the tree and, and kind of create like light and air in Hollywood out in the middle a little bit. Also, some trees will, depending on what the conditions are, if you know there's more light on one side or the other, they can grow kind of lopsided, sometimes, like, in general, they seem to balance themselves out weight wise in the canopy, but I've got one fruit tree in the front of my house that always just grows along like one random branch into the path of where you walk up into the house. And because it's stretching to get light in that one particular spot, I always have to trim that back. But it is good to, you know, give your tree a little bit of evenness. And like a sort of, I don't even know what the right word would be like a parallel structure on both sides so that it's not too heavy on one side. And you know, like it's if you missed a season, you it's, it's not the biggest consequence, unless you're like an orchardist, who's relying on your crop for the year to feed your family or something, there have been years when spring just came way faster than I intended, or it was too rainy to prune until later. And a lot of times though, in those years, I will wait until the fall and just do like a light prune before the winter and then do it again in the next spring. So you know the trees will still grow, they'll still make fruit, there's other stuff you can do. If you're worried about the size of your fruit, but in general, you're just trying to like, take some of the volume out similar to giving someone a haircut, and de-poofing their hair by kind of like cutting layers into it and stuff.

Sara Schuster  12:07  
Awesome. That's Yeah, that's a great visual for it. Just thinking about thinking about pruning as like a haircut and also just giving room for, you know, the fruit growth that you were talking about. It kind of reminds me of, you know, the flip side of that of not pruning when I've seen pictures of really old orchards that are discovered, and they haven't, you know, obviously haven't been pruned in like decades. And so those trees, you know, without a lot of intervention, you're not going to get a lot of fruit, because like you said, everything's growing towards the center. And there's not as much airflow. And so yeah, pruning is sort of that human intervention, because we're asking the tree, to hopefully give us more more fruit. And I think this is probably what causes a lot of like trepidation for folks when we go to prune for the first time, is that because it feels like such a big intervention. And the idea of like cutting healthy limbs off of a plant, you know, feels or can feel kind of counterintuitive to what we normally want to do as gardeners. So I was wondering if maybe you could walk us through printing a fruit tree and kind of like what we'd be looking for? And how do we decide like what we want to cut versus, you know, leaving behind to give that right balance that you were talking about?

Aimi Hamraie  13:22  
Yeah, sure. So it really starts with when you plant the tree, if you were the one to plan to all my trees were bare root when they were planted, which means that they were basically like these dormant sticks that were probably like two feet tall or something. And you want to you know, like lock them at the top at that point because it encourages the tree to then grow to lens to start branching out. So one of the kind of motions that you do sometimes want to encourage is branching in certain strategic ways. But then also, you know, in terms of the lenses themselves, there are specific types of cuts that you make, and I'll talk about that in a second. But you know, when you have like a little baby tree, you're really like training it and you could do like an especially a two that's a really interesting approach to pruning which basically means that you have the tree up against a wall or a fence or some sort of like wire frame. And instead of letting it grow to look like a tree you kind of let it grow to have like an interesting geometric shape. And it's basically laying flat like two dimensional and it just gets way more sun that way and bears a lot more fruit on fewer lens. So you can read about as valleys that's something you're interested in. But if you are not doing it especially a in a normal year, you know you figure out what time of year you're going to do it wait for you know, forage not be about terrain or having just been raining because there's probably going to be mold and fungus spores in the air. And you want to have really clean tools. So I clean mine went in isopropyl alcohol before I use them and I have a lopper. Some like, you know, gardening shares, usually like a really sharp, nice. And then like pruning saw, which is a little bit longer. And there are basically like two kinds of cuts you would make at that point. The first one that I usually make is to see if there's anything that's like broken, or dead or disease that needs to be cut off. Like those are the first things that you've cut off. And you don't want those to go in your compost or anything. So you just kind of put them in a separate container. And maybe like you burn it or throw it away or whatever. And then you kind of look at the structure of the tree. And if your tree is younger, you can ask yourself questions like, as these limbs get bigger, like these main lens, is it going to be hard to mow around the tree or weed whacker or whatever, you know, are their lives that are super close to the ground that are going to make it hard for you to get close to the tree. But also you want to depending on how tall you are in short person, you don't want to make the lens like too high up because then it might be harder to pick the fruit. So you can kind of like tail your trees here on high. But you just basically decide where the shortest limbs are going to be like at one at what height. And you might use like a pruning saw, depending on how big those limbs are, if they're more than like an inch thick to cut those. And if you are doing those kinds of cuts with a pruning saw, the basic method is that you cut from underneath really close to the trunk. And then you go back and cut at the top so that the the branch doesn't strip the bark when it's coming down. And then you go through and you you use, like you know whatever tools are appropriate for the size of the smaller branches to cut the branches that are growing completely up and down off of the side branches. So these are ones that will just they will just crowd out the space, they won't be fruit burying. So they're just producing biomass for the tree, they're just producing wood, but they're not necessary for like the structural integrity of the tree. So you cut those off. Same with any root suckers, those usually stick up straight out of the ground or right out of the bottom of the trunk. And then you look into the middle, and you're sort of going for like, it depends on what kind of tree you have. But let's say a peach tree, you're going for like a bowl shaped, kind of that faces, whichever direction the sun is. So you know, like south facing bowl of tree. And you cut off the branches that are pointing toward the middle of the tree. And usually those will also be criss crossing with other branches. So you just like sniff all those out, and it leaves more than empty middle. And if you've done it right, you'll basically have like a central trunk, with some branches coming off of it that are like kind of pointing in different directions. But hopefully not hitting like another tree or a fence or anything like that. And they're coming out sideways. So those are horizontal branches. And that's where your food is going to be. And the length of those branches is also important because you could get really, really long branches that bear lots of fruit. But when they are weighed down with fruit in the springtime or in like or like early summer, depending on what kind of fruit and fruit it is, those branches may like bend down to the ground. And that can be okay. But it also increases the risk of getting fungal diseases. So you can find a node on the tree, which is like a little bump often where little side branches are coming off and you can lop it off there and to encourage the tree to branch out a little bit. And that will even it out so that there isn't this like usually long branches coming down. But it's okay if a long branch comes down or you can build you can basically take like a two by four and prop it up if you need to at that point.

Sara Schuster  19:47  
Oh, I was gonna ask with like the longer branches. Is there a certain length that you like on your own trees that you try to avoid? You know, letting a branch get to a certain length?

Aimi Hamraie  19:57  
No, it's just kind of like an intuitive thing. Because each tree will have different elasticity based on like how new those branches are. And you kind of see a lot of that growth that falls down to the ground will be new growth on the branch that comes about in the spring after you prune. So sometimes it's inevitable sometimes you can't really avoid it unless you're trimming back the new growth, which you shouldn't really do. But if you think about like putting up a shelf, on a wall, where you would want the brackets to be, you wouldn't put up like an eight foot long shelf, and only have the brackets at the two long ends, and none in the middle, right? Like you'd usually have brackets like every three feet. So in a similar way, like you can kind of pull on your branches a little bit and see how elastic they are. And as they get woody, they'll be stronger, and they'll grow bigger, but when they're younger, they'll kind of like, hold down. So I definitely have some that this past year, just like grew really long, and I wasn't expecting it. And they did once there was a storm. And they sort of got that down to the ground. And then they didn't pop back up, they stayed that way. So this year when I are like in early 2021, when I go to prune them, I'm going to prune those way back and encourage them to push out more, because I know that they will bear fruit, and the new growth will just go toward like one year of growing some, like slightly bushier branches, but then after that, it'll be a little bit stronger than it was before. So it you know, the the length of your branches will also depend on what type of tree it is. And if it's a standard or dwarf variety, the dwarfs You know, they're, they're quite a bit smaller. So they, they won't, like do that quite as much as a standard fruit tree, although they still could. And you know, you can have in a fruit tree or any kind of plant, like you're kind of feeling it out as you go. So you can maybe kind of tell if you're going to need some supports. As the tree grows fruit, if it starts to reach out toward another tree that's nearby, or something like that, you can just basically just take a two by fours and like notch it and and then like, make the other end pointy and stick it in the ground at an angle and it'll hold it up perfectly. Yeah, that's so that's like the basic process is like, you know, bigger lives closer to the ground, vertical shoes, and then any criss crossing shoots and branches to hollow it out.

Sara Schuster  22:54  
Okay, and so again, you're just looking to kind of create some space. And I really like how you put it where you're sort of like imagining like how, how the branches are going to grow as the tree gets older and bigger. Kind of doing a little bit of visioning work with that. And imagining. Yeah, okay, cool. So I've heard I've never done this myself, but I've heard that you can sometimes route some of the parts that you've pruned. I know you said that. You know, anything that was dead or diseased Do you want to dispose of, especially if it was diseased, not putting it in your compost pile? Have you ever done anything with the parts that you've pruned before?

Aimi Hamraie  23:32  
Yeah, you can root them, it depends on how you make the cuts, anywhere you make the cuts from So typically, when you're pruning, you are cutting the branch back to the main branch or to the trunk of the tree. And, you know, different trees have different amounts of like nodes. fig trees have a lot of these nodes were like, as long as you cut the branch and there are a few nodes on the branch. And nodes are the places where, you know, often like a new branch or leafs would come out. But they're also I don't know if this is actually true, but I my sense is that they have like stem cells or something like that. So there's like something about the node. That also means that it can grow roots if it's exposed to a rooting hormone and soil. So it's pretty easy to root a fig cut in with some other trees like you could get the node but you sort of have to like it works better for grafting. So you'll have to like cut around it like you could cut with like an exacto knife because the node will be at the sort of joint between the branch that's sticking out and the the larger trunk. So you know, it's like peaches or plums or something like that. You just kind of have to cut in more in order to be able to grow You debt. But you know, those are trees that grow very frequently through grafting. So there'll be grafted to the root stock of like a crab, Apple or quince or something, and it can be effective to grasp them. So if you're interested in grafting, you can learn about that. There probably are some that grow differently than that, like I forgot to mention, I have a cherry tree. And it doesn't seem to have the same kind of like node situation. And it grows in a different pattern than my other trees. So yeah, there's like stuff like that, that you can do. You can also use, you know, I usually use the cuttings for, like, you know, Tinder for fires, depending on the type of wood that you have. You can also use it for like smoking neat, like peach wood, or cherry wood is really nice for our like, barbecuing, whatever it is that you're barbecuing, it can produce, like very fragrant smoke, I often will bury my sticks and stuff like in my garden beds, just so that they, you know, add some carbon to the soil, depending on what size they are.

Sara Schuster  26:16  
Oh, yeah, that's a great idea. I love that. So you mentioned that one of the years, you had a lot of really great growth with some of your trees, because you'd put wood chips around them. And so that made me think about, you know, maybe what are some other things in addition to pruning, other things we can do to sort of prepare our trees and maybe especially like this time of year, as we're heading into winter and wetter months, you know, is there anything else you'd suggest people be looking to do?

Aimi Hamraie  26:44  
Yeah, so um, you know, it depends on how establish your trees are, how much you want to mulch. It's good to mulch because it you know, retains water and moisture and stuff. And at the same time, like you want to do it correctly, like you don't want to do it right up to the trunk of the tree, because it can cause decay, and it can invite pass and stuff. But with some types of fruit trees, you also want to be really careful to clean out underneath them because the like the fungal spores that most effect, and I'll just like use peach trees as an example, the fungal spores that will like live and all that stuff that's under the tree. So you know, like when you prune, don't leave the sticks around. Don't leave like a bunch of like, stuff on on underneath, don't try to like start a compost pile under your tree. Because when the fruit grows, it will be covered in those words and it will rot like on the tree. It's also good to give your trees a little bit of love, like with I'll do like an activated compost tea, I have a worm bin and so I use the worm castings and you know, put them in water and stir we can put like a an aquarium pump in there, you know, just step to give the soil some life and the micro organisms and some nutrients and stuff that the trees will be like happy and healthy. And then do it again in the springtime when they're growing. I mean, that's really it, like when they get established, the sort of maintenance that you have to do is pruning. And some people do choose to spray their trees, which I do not I just eat whatever I can before the fruit starts go bad and then I clean up the rest. And that's just like a personal choice and my chickens are ripe fruit she said I want to spray over there but some people might spray for pests and and fungus stuff like in the early spring directly on the branches and on the on the open buds like the flowers. Yeah, you know, that's that's pretty much it.

Sara Schuster  29:03  
Yeah, that's great. But I mean that it really you know, it's like you said once the trees get established other than, you know, doing the pruning, you know, at least once a year there really isn't a ton of work that goes into these and so I think that's one of the cool things about the idea of like having you know, food forests and orchards is that they become pretty, you know, not super time intensive like very quickly which is really great, especially for those of us wrestling with like, you know, annual vegetables and things like that.

Aimi Hamraie  29:34  
Totally, they're on a different time scale. One thing I suggest just speaking of food for us is to plant companions around your tree so like I grow comfrey under my fruit trees and also garlic chives, and does help with like, you know, the garlic chives deter some pests and it doesn't mess up the tree roots if you cut off the top of the chives and the comfrey you know the leaves, just sort Like add to a mulch layer around the trees, and they draw up nutrients from deeper in the soil. So there's stuff like that that you can do as well to think about having kind of all the layers present so that the tree isn't just growing by itself, it's like well taken care of, in this ecosystem. Oh, one more thing related to this, I forgot to mention when I was talking about when you first plant your trees, but you can use a kind of like you can do like a mushroom dunk kind of thing, basically. So there are mushroom spores, that you can get fungus spores that do help with the soil structure and with the trees ability to connect with like nutrients and other plants and stuff around it. So that's something that you can do like either as a spray or coat the roots of the berry tree, when you plant it, and then it it basically like helps the soil around it develop as it grows.

Sara Schuster  31:04  
Oh, very cool. So is that something you just do one time when planting? Or do you ever reapply?

Aimi Hamraie  31:09  
you can reapply for sure. I had inoculated the woodchips around some of my fruit trees with King stropharia. Which is like a it's it's also red wine cap. So it kind of looks like a portabella. But it's red. And yeah, those were growing for a while until we had a really dry summer. But like, yeah, you can do stuff like that. And it just helps everything break down and connect improves, like the soil quality and stuff.

Sara Schuster  31:40  
Yeah, that's wonderful. I mean, you've shared so much just like really great knowledge and advice here. As we wrap up just Is there any anyone out there who's getting ready to you know, prune this winter pruning your trees for the first time and are still feeling like really nervous about this. Any advice for folks to make them feel a little more at ease?

Aimi Hamraie  32:01  
I would say that getting to know your trees pretty well. And just understanding their behavior and you know, when they seem to be active and when they seem to be inactive just throughout the year can help you feel less nervous about pruning when the time comes. Because you'll know if the tree is not dormant enough. Or if it is dormant enough, you will be able to you'll be able to tell if you make that first cut, and it's too early to maybe like come back a little bit later. And I guess similar to giving a loved one a haircut, just you know, make confident cuts so that you leave your trees tidy and not with a bunch of like big like the draggled wounds and stuff. So having really good sharp tools and making sure that they're clean, all that kind of stuff, just sort of treat it like you're doing surgery, and and we're probably not going to kill your tree.

Sara Schuster  33:02  
I think that's maybe the best point there is to just know that like, we're, it's very unlikely you're going to damage your tree to the point where it doesn't come back the next year.

Aimi Hamraie  33:12  
Absolutely, you know, talk to your tree, explain what's happening. Just let it know that you're giving it some light and spaciousness so that it can grow and be stronger the next year.

Sara Schuster  33:24  
Beautiful. And anything else that you'd like to share before we wrap up, Aimi?

Aimi Hamraie  33:29  
Oh, well, I will share that my persimmon trees came from you, Sara. And I'm very excited to watch them grow. I planted two in one hole so that they would pollinate each other because I didn't have enough space for two separate person and trees. And they seem to be doing pretty well so far. So I'm excited to watch them grow and also see them as like a symbol of our friendships. That's very sweet.

Sara Schuster  33:57  
Oh, that's so fantastic. Thank you. And I actually have in our little orchard here, two peach trees that were volunteer trees that the squirrels planted at Aimi's house and Aimi was kind enough to let me dig up and transplant here. So we have a very fruit based friendship and I love that. Well, thank you so much, Aimi. I appreciate you sharing all this info. And this has been so helpful. Thank you.

Aimi Hamraie  34:25  
Oh, it's such a pleasure. Thanks, Sara.

Sara Schuster  34:30  
Okay, I hope y'all enjoyed that. So much great information. They're really thankful to Aimi for coming on the show to share all of that. There were some links and book recommendations that Aimi sent to me when we were prepping for this interview. And so I'm going to be posting some resources. over on Patreon. It'll be a public post so that anyone can access that and see those links and book recommendations. And I'm also going to put some other info up there as well. including how to get in touch with Aimi. Aimi also has another podcast called Contra, which is really, really well done, I highly recommend that if you want to check that out. And you can also click over to Patreon to check out the show transcript. And yeah, just lots of good info over there. I'm going to be starting to do that for most of our episodes going forward, just putting relevant kind of bonus content, especially with our interviews so that you can kind of learn more about our guests and stuff as we go. But yeah, and also, while you're there on Patreon, a little plug here. If you like the show and want to keep helping us create more content, you can sign up to support the show for $2 or more per month. We appreciate all of that. So so much. As always, you can reach out and get in touch with me through Patreon through Fox and through Instagram at Fox and elder hit me up with any questions you have suggestions, topic ideas, now that we're doing more interviews, if there's a guest you think is relevant to the show that I should bring on, feel free to let me know. And thanks again for being here. And for all your support. I'm really enjoying getting to do these for y'all. Until next time, keep your hands dirty and your heart open.


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