Q: When and how do I prune my citrus trees?

A: Congratulations for knowing NOT to prune your citrus trees in fall! The temptation is to start whacking away at unruly limbs and stems in fall after a summer’s growth, but fall is the wrong time to prune fruit trees (and most things) because you are causing the limbs to “de-harden,” making them vulnerable to winter cold damage. (Assuming, of course, we actually have regular winter cold again some day.) Neither is summer pruning recommended, except to trim out dead or damaged limbs.

Citrus trees do not need annual pruning to encourage fruiting. Actually, the only pruning usually required is for the removal of water sprouts (suckers) and dead, damaged or diseased limbs, or when the citrus plants become too tall (above 12 to 13 feet), making overall management, including freeze protection, difficult.

The best time to prune is approaching late February, after the danger of freeze has passed, and until just before bloom time in spring. Selective maintenance pruning helps the tree develop a pleasing shape and ideal size, and helps citrus, such as lemon and lime, develop their leader stems. Leave short stubs when removing branches. This helps prevent entry of disease organisms into the trunk.

The two basic pruning cuts are heading back and thinning out.

The heading back cut removes the terminal portion of the shoot. This promotes branching within a 10-inch area below the cut. The uppermost bud will grow to be the new leader, and usually two to four other lateral buds below the terminal bud also grow. This type of cut is most often used on young trees to induce branching and to develop tree structure.

Thinning cuts involve removing a shoot at its origin. It is suggested that thinning cuts, rather than heading back, be used in upper areas of trees to reduce height. This type of cut helps keep the tree from becoming overly bushy and maintains the tree’s framework and a reasonable height. It is used on young trees to favor the development of certain limbs and shoots and is used on older, fruit-bearing trees needing light penetration into their interior.

After the tree has been shaped by early pruning, the job consists mainly of maintenance pruning: to remove broken and diseased limbs, to let more light into the tree interior and to remove suckers or limbs that cross and rub other limbs.

It should be noted that our fruiting trees such as figs and pears, as well as vining and bush plants such as blackberries and blueberries, have differing pruning requirements.

Q: I have a huge stump I need to remove quickly and cheaply. I’ve heard of burning the stump by building a fire on top of it; does this work? I’ve also heard of filling drilled holes with something flammable and lighting it. I don’t want to blow myself up, so your comments are welcomed.

A: While we love our cozy winter fires — in the fireplace — building a fire on a tree stump is extremely unsafe and actually not very effective. In addition to the risk of blowing yourself up, you also run the risk of the fire smoldering underground in the root system, then surfacing in some unexpected place — say, the foundation of your home. Not the way you want to warm up a winter day! Burning out a stump is also a slow way to get rid of it. Chemical stump removers are also slow, sometimes taking years.

I can’t promise that the best methods are “quick and cheap,” but the safe and effective method of stump removal is mechanical. Nothing beats a good grinder or an axe and a strong back. One option is to call a professional, bonded tree-care company and have them “grind” the stump out. A cheaper option, if you have the energy, is to find your Paul Bunyan boots and dig down around the stump yourself to unearth the roots and cut and remove each one as you find it. You will need to take an axe and cut apart the stump to remove as much of it as possible.  

Keep in mind that some cut tree roots will struggle to resurrect the tree and you may see new trees emerge where the root was cut. All living things fight to survive. You will need to watch for these and dig them out, sometimes for several years.