Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Pruning quinces

Waning moon in January. A good time for the winter pruning, especially now the heavy frost of the last week has given way to milder temperatures. Time to give the quinces some serious attention. They are choked with dead wood and the rock hard mummies of last years’ fruit full of overwintering brown rot spores. We lost a lot of fruit to brown rot last year, a legacy of 2009-10’s unusually wet winter and several years of neglect, and we need to bring the trees back to health as well as reduce the substantial reservoir of brown rot spores on the quinta.

Unpruned quince with fruit 'mummies' containing overwintering brown rot spores

I’m not keen on fruit tree bootcamps – all that regimented uniformity in complete submission to man’s agricultural agenda – but when the tree is too choked for its own health with old, non-productive and dead growth, the bulk of its fruit is too far out of reach to be pickable, and rots on the tree for lack of light and circulating air, then it’s time to intervene.

Left to their own devices, natural ungrafted quinces have more of a shrub or bush-type habit than a tree and will form suckers prolifically, ending up as a thick unruly hedge. Quinces are co-terminous – producing the bulk of their fruit on last year’s new growth – so the cultivation ideal removes suckers to emphasise a single trunk and the tree is pruned to maintain the young wood in a vase shape, allowing plenty of light and air into the centre and keeping fruit within harvestable height.

Quinces bushes overwhelmed with brambles and bracken

There’s quinces in there somewhere

Our quinces are a long way from that ideal. Even ‘unruly hedge’ carries a hint of more order than is evident here. They’ve suckered freely in all directions, with new wood growing amidst and around old wood and other trees, creating a tangled mass of stems and branches, and making the removal of the old wood awkward, especially when they’re growing on a steep slope and are also full of brambles, bracken and ivy. Shoots have grown to 4-5m on the drier slopes, but where the ground is moister, are up to 7m. There’s a few years’ worth of pruning work here to get them into a reasonable state and make breathing space for the other trees growing amongst them, so this year I’m going to concentrate mostly on removing dead wood and the cankered branches and fruit ‘mummies’ holding the brown rot spores.

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