tea plantation

Tea Pruning and Skiffing

What is tea pruning and skiffing?

Pruning is a process, by which parts of a plant like the branches, roots or buds are selectively removed.  Tea pruning is a horticultural practice widely used in tea plantation. This process helps the plants to get rid of the diseased or damaged, unproductive, unwanted or dead tissues. Pruning helps the plant to maintain and improve its health. This further enables the plant to prevent insects and decay organisms from entering. Pruning  helps the plant to shape it up itself by controlling or directing its growth. Pruning eliminates cramped and crossing branches, thus prevents plant damage and ensures enough sunlight and air for the leaves. Tea pruning increases the overall yield or quality of the crop. It also enables the planter to prepare nursery specimens for transplantation.

tea pruning and skiffing of a tea plantI. Objectives of pruning:

In tea plantation, young plants are pruned to:

  • produce a low, spreading frame for quick ground coverage
  • facilitate mechanical and manual harvesting
  • develop a sturdy framework that can sustain proper vegetative growth in the future years
  • harvest maximum crop even in the early years.

Mature bushes are pruned at intervals to renovate the branch system and to keep the bush in the vegetative phase. Pruning is a necessary operation as it helps the plants to channel maximum energy to the process of production of leaf. It stimulates the production of new sets of fast growing branches by replacing old sets from which most of the leaves would have dropped off.

Tea pruning therefore,

(i) controls growth and,

(ii) stimulates new growth.

II. Time of Pruning:

The time of pruning depends on several factors such as climate, soil and also, topographic conditions. In general, the optimum time of the year to prune/skiff is when the plant is dormant. Thus pruning is done when plant growth rate is at the lowest and thus, carbohydrate reserves are at the highest. However, the exact time depends on the locality, climate, crop and quality requirements, seasonal crop distribution, susceptibility to pest and disease etc.

Considering the starch reserve in roots, December-January is the ideal period for pruning tea bushes in North East India.  Though the root starch content is found to be maximum in February, still pruning is not advisable during this month. Pruning done in February invariably results in less early season crop. Hence planters prefer to prune or skiff tea plants during December-January period.

III. Tea Pruning Cycles:

Pruning cycle consists of a prune followed by lighter forms of cut or unprune until the bushes are pruned again. Substitution of annual pruning by longer pruning cycles through the introduction of skiff and/ or unprune, in general, increases the productivity of tea. The duration of pruning should be such that the branches will remain uniformly thick leading to a maximum number of pruning sticks on the frame.

IV. Choice of Pruning Cycle:

A pruning cycle of fixed duration for all sections is not conducive to crop optimization. Studies indicate that sustainability is lost after 2-3 repeats irrespective of 3 or 4 year cycle. The reasons could be the age of the bush, age of wood, vigor, bush frame and hygiene. However, in youngish mature tea after final frame forming prune and in old tea after bush frame rectification, a 3 year cycle of LP-DS-UP or LP-UP-UP is more ideal than any other cycle.

Studies have indicated that 3 year pruning cycle helped sustaining the productivity better than 4 year cycle in the plains of N.E. India. For both productivity and quality LP-DS-UP was found to be advantageous over other cycles in general.  Depending on vigour and age of bush – 4 year cycles could sustain for 1-2 repeats, while 3 year cycles could sustain up to three repeats. Few examples of pruning cycles:

A. 3 year cycles

  1. LP-UP-UP- Crop oriented
  2. LP-DS-UP- Quality oriented
  3. LP-DS-MS- Quality oriented

B. 4 year cycles:

  1. LP-UP-DS-UP
  2. LP-UP-MS-UP 

V. Tea Skiffing:

Lighter forms of cuts given to the tea plants in between two consecutive prune years are called skiffing. Introduction of skiffing has eliminated the necessity of light pruning every year. The bushes may be deep skiffed (DS), medium skiffed (MS), light skiffed (LS) or just leveled by giving a level of skiff (LoS). While the plant is not touched at all, then it is called unpruned (UP). The description of the skiffing operation is given below:

  • Deep Skiff: When done after a light prune, this is a cut given midway between the pruning and tipping levels. For instance, tea tipped at 20 cm will be deep skiffed at 10 cm above the previous pruning level. Deep skiffing after one or more years of unprune or level skiffs is a cut midway between the pruning level and the height of the table at the end of the season. This height comes at 12.5-15 cm (maximum) from the last LP mark.
  • Medium Skiff: When done after a light prune, tea tipped at 20 cm and if deep skiffed, tea tipped at 10 cm. Then the plant will be cut at a height of 15 cm from the pruning mark or 5 cm below the last tipping level. However, when medium skiffing is done after one or more years of unprune, light skiffed or level skiffed years, this skiff is given just below the “Crow’s feet’ formed by the last year’s plucking.

VI. Size of knife:

Fifteen cm blade knife should be used for light pruning of youngish tea. For cleaning operation, a smaller knife of 7.5-10 cm should be used. The weight of knife used for light pruning should not be lesser than 450g. Lighter knives cause wood splitting.

Article contributed by Dr. Atul Chandra Sarma