This section is from the book "The Gardener V2", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
It is an old and often-repeated saying, in reference to any disputed point, that the truth lies between two extremes - not always midway, we presume. One of the privileges enjoyed by her Majesty's subjects in these realms is the freedom of dispute, and it is a privilege which is evidently much appreciated. The more a point is discussed, the less unanimous becomes the discussion. The disputants seem to waive minor points, and arrange themselves round a couple of opposite central ideas, the more antagonistic the better, and wrangle round the one common centre of wrath, but approach it they will not while charged with the fervour of the occasion. Perhaps electricity, which explains most mysteries, as well as the Potato disease, has something to do with it; mutual repulsion, and positive and negative elements, are common to both phenomena. If the fact be asserted that we gardeners are a hardworking, intelligent, and conscientious class of men, some one must counter-assert that we are corrupt, illiterate, and time-serving; the truth being, that, as a class, we are pretty much like other classes of humanity, but taking a peculiar tone of character from the nature of our employment - that is, rather retiring and thoughtful, and a little given to self-assertion.
Some time ago we ventured to advocate a sparing use of the knife, both at root and branches, in pruning of fruit-trees, under particular circumstances, having repeatedly seen the folly of severe top-pruning, and extreme bad effects of the other; and forthwith we were supposed not to prune at all, - that our wall and espalier trees must be something of the style of a hedgerow. Somebody also insinuated, that he for one liked to see trees well trained, as if training and cutting were inseparable; and suggesting the idea that our trees must be a pretty tangled picture indeed. Now, in advocating a minimum of cutting with the knife, it must not be supposed that we do not prune at all, or that we eschew all regular training. We venture to assert again that our idea is the most consistent with good training. By close attention to summer pinching and thinning of the wood, the leading shoots of a tree are strengthened; and by timely stopping, two and even three pairs of branches can be secured on young horizontal espalier and wall trees.
Our critics forget that summer-pinching is no new thing, and when well followed up, reduces winter-pruning to a minimum.
A few days ago we called on a neighbour who has two houses full of fine trained Peach-trees, the foliage fine and beautifully green, and the wood beautifully green also, and exceedingly strong and abundant; but, notwithstanding their fine health, they would not fruit, and they had been well cut in last year. Our neighbour proposed to cut them well in again, and try them another year; and if they did not do, threatened to pull them out, and plant other sorts. We strongly advised him to put on plenty heat in his pipes throughout the day, with top ventilation, and allow the houses to get cold at nights with front ventilation, and not to shorten the wood at all in winter, though it was as long and as strong as Raspberry canes, and try what the result would be next year; but our friend was doubtful. We believe that unripe wood and close pruning have much to do with shanking, if not everything to do with it; and we believe that Peaches and Nectarines, if not other fruits, are as liable to shank as Grapes. Apricots and Plums are well known sometimes to throw off their fruit wholesale at the second swelling; - this is peculiar to some varieties more than others.
We have long been satisfied that this phenomenon and the shanking of Grapes are one and the same thing, and are the result of a badly-fed immature tree. Now is the best time to prune all fruit-trees; thin out all useless wood, so as to fully expose all foliage which is to mature the buds. The time was within our memory when the pruning of fruit-trees was held to be the most important part of their culture, and the annual crop was held to depend on the annual pruning in winter; and every non-professional possessed of a garden considered himself highly favoured if he could secure the services of some neighbouring licensed wielder of the knife; and if he did not eat of the fruit the following season, he could congratulate himself he had done his best by having the best advice. Bad pruning and spring-frosts were the explanation of all failure, which should have been attributed more properly to exhausted trees and badly-ripened wood.
The object in growing fruit-trees at all is to have fruit: the primary condition to fruitfulness is a well-fed tree and ripe wood; a secondary condition to secure ripe wood is pruning. All pruning should be done with this in view, even the summer-pruning of the Vine. The primary object of pruning is not to have a well-shaped, well-trained tree - that is a secondary object. Pruning in winter has nothing to do with the ripening of the wood, consequently all winter-pruning as a primary operation is useless, and may just as well be left undone. Root-pruning even should not be done in winter, as is usual, from there being more time, but rather about the end of August, to give the trees time to repair the damage while there is foliage on them.
The Squire's Gardener.