New Tool Makes Annual Berry Pruning Easy

Recently, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to field-test newer electronic hand-held pruners from Pellenc America, Inc. that use lithium-ion battery power. At first, I admit to being dubious of such a lightweight, battery-powered pruner really being able to cut through older, tough stems of blueberry plants. For sustaining top production of heaviest yielding blueberry plants, each year some of the oldest, gray-bark stems should be removed near the base of the plants.

Dr. Gary Pavlis at Rutgers University is widely known and recognized as a leading blueberry Extension/research scientist. He developed the “1 to 6 rule” that has served blueberry growers so well: For every six old stems in a blueberry plant, annually remove one of them as a minimum guide for renewing these long-living perennial plants. These low cuts removing old, less fruitful stems stimulate crowns to produce new, vigorously growing, strong, young replacement stems. Our field experience with this rule proved over and over that such annual pruning of blueberries by selective annual removal of basal stems does wonders to improve yields and berry size! Even on young plants that do not have six stems by year four after planting, we begin that year to remove one old stem, the original stem that was the main stem at planting. Such basal stem removal stimulates new stems.

You cannot obtain blueberry plant vigor and sustain or improve yields without annual stem removal! Don’t “rest” on your laurels and skip a year once your plants reach four years of age. Conversely, what if you have older plants that still do not have six stems? Get stern with them and cut one out of each such plant. Only basal pruning generates new stems with higher yields and larger berries. What if you have old plants with only one or maybe two large stems and no younger stems? Cut those plants down completely with a chain saw. You will lose the next year’s crop, but by the second year many new stems will be fruiting because you gave those plants a new life.

Time And Effort Savings

As I visited and worked with growers as an Extension horticulturist in Virginia before retirement, I noted that many growers just never found the time and energy to get their pruning job done each and every year. As I grew older, and with commercial blueberries at our berry farm, I too found this job, each and every winter, to be more difficult to complete because it is hard, slow work using hand loppers.

Recently I received a demonstration loaner electronic hand pruner from Pellenc, which is headquartered in France but has manufacturing plants and sales/service offices in most countries of the world. These pruners are widely accepted and used by table and winegrape growers as well as by nursery growers of landscape woody plants as they prune and shape their plants annually. When I asked one of Pellenc’s U.S. distributors if they had sold one of these newer, lithium-ion battery-powered hand pruners to blueberry growers, they said no, not yet. So, I was skeptical, knowing first-hand how hard and tough it is to cut such older blueberry lower stem wood.

I decided to give the demo unit a trial, and I became a quick believer in its power to cut through old blueberry stems up to almost 1½ inches in diameter, like they were matchsticks! In 30 minutes I had cut out more tough, old blueberry stems with the electronic pruner than I would have cut in more than two hours with hand loppers. To my amazement, this lithium-ion battery will go at full cutting power for more than eight hours of continuous pruning before needing a recharge. That is far longer than I can run without food and rest in an eight-hour span. Next I waded into our thornless blackberries we grow on the remaining portion of our small farm, growing for family and close friends, not commercially. Each year, the two-year-old canes that bore fruit the past summer die back and must be removed by basal cuts near the crown, similar to the type of stem cuts made on blueberries. They offer no resistance to the electronic pruner, making this formerly dreaded job fast and easy, almost fun!

I thought I might need an extension handle because of the bending over with this hand pruner, but the pruner head only weighs about a pound and a half, so no weight lifting is done. Likewise, the well-padded shoulder and back harness cradles the small lithium-ion battery that also is very lightweight, only about 2½ pounds. It’s like magic what you can easily accomplish with such a pruner. If desired, a 45-centimeter as well as a 90-centimeter (about 3 foot length) extension handle model is available to reduce bending over.

Some growers may justify the use of both models, one a hand unit and one an extension handle unit, for those down-low basal stem cuts and for use with fruit trees. Time, labor, cost, and effort reduction with such electronic pruning aids would allow for them to quickly pay for themselves. I sincerely believe that every blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry growing farm family needs such an electronic pruner. Timely, correct annual pruning is a fundamental key to sustaining a profitable berry growing farm. Now you can finish the job on time and with a heap of less effort. Why should grape growers have all the fun?

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