Pruning Apple Trees



Often the snow on the hilly south side of my house has melted by early March, allowing snowdrops to push their little noses out of the ground and permitting me to pick buds that open up indoors. Most years by mid-March the snow has melted enough to allow me to get out and move around my apple trees to prune them. Not this year. Snow is still knee-deep here and not disappearing very quickly. It will be April before I get to do much pruning.

 

The first step in pruning is to really take a good long look at the tree. Are there dead branches? They must go. Are there branches rubbing? You must remove one or the other. What about what I call “invaders”? Invaders are branches that “see” an empty spot and grow willy-nilly through the center of the tree to grab the sunshine. Off with it! Is the interior crowded? If so, it needs work.

Apple fruit spurs

Apple fruit spurs

 

Where you make your pruning cuts is important for tree health. Don’t cut branches flush to the trunk or a bigger branch. Don’t cut into the swollen area at the base of a branch, an area called the branch collar. You can often see a distinct edge to the collar where the wrinkles in the bark in the branch collar stop and smooth bark of the branch begin. But don’t cut off branches too far from the trunk, either. That creates stubs that will die and slowly rot away – leaving an open wound where disease can enter.

 

In general, it is better to take a few bigger branches than lots of little ones. You can safely remove 20 to 25 percent of a tree’s leaves when pruning, though a well-tended tree won’t even need that much. The amount of wood is less important than the number of leaves, though that is a bit difficult to determine in winter. Pruning an old, neglected apple tree might be done with just a few cuts to remove big branches that are competing with the tree’s central leader or cluttering up the interior of the tree. Then in subsequent years you might work on smaller branches.

 

If you want blossoms and fruit, you can see if a branch will produce apples by looking for fruit spurs. Fruit spurs are gnarly little branches – usually just 3 or 4 inches long – that grow off bigger branches, branches that are at least two or three years old. At the tip of each spur is a cluster of buds that will produce leaves and flowers. If you are deciding whether to remove a branch, look for fruit spurs before cutting. Fruit spurs will not produce fruit in their first year.

 

Apples (and crabapples) tend to send up lots of waterspouts. These start as pencil-thick twigs shooting straight up from bigger branches. They are often a stress response: in summer they grow to produce leaves in the cool interior of a tree when the outer leaves have stopped producing food for the tree because it’s too hot. So even if you cut them out every year, more will come –often in the same place. Same varieties of trees send out a lot of water sprouts, others just a few. If you leave them in place, they will eventually become full sized nuisance branches cluttering up your tree.

 

A few words about bad crotches. Fruit bearing branches should be at an angle of 45 to 60 degree angle from the main trunk. A bad crotch angle (30 degrees or less) exist when there is a very tight angle between two stems. If the stems develop heavy fruit loads or are subject to heavy ice and snow loads, the weak crotch may break open, damaging the tree.

 

Fixing a bad crotch

Fixing a bad crotch

Breaking of bad crotches occurs because as the branches grow, they grow together, enclosing bark – and creating a week spot. Prune one of the two branches to correct the problem. Do this when a tree is young if you can. Some trees are more prone to bad crotches than others. Maples, for example, often are full of bad crotch angles (but don’t prune them in spring as they will bleed excessively).

 

Apples produce the most fruit on branches that are more horizontal than vertical. Sometimes I weight down young branches to make them more horizontal. A milk jug with some water in it will do the job – and you can increase the weight to just the right amount by tying on the jug and adding water. Do that in mid-April and remove it on the Fourth of July.

 

For me, pruning is not just about getting the most flowers or fruit from a tree, it’s about creating a beautiful form. In winter, especially, I enjoy looking at a well-pruned tree as sculpture. If a tree has big branches hacked off to create a tree with a short profile – as some are in commercial orchards – it is not pleasing to the eye. A tree that tapers toward the top and has nicely spaced branches looks good – and produces a good fruit load, too. Experts say that an apple tree should generally have a central leader or stem that dominates the tree and grows up the middle of it.

 

Pruning apple trees is one of my seasonal joys. I love sculpting the trees, making them lovely to the eye, healthier and more productive, too. A well pruned apple tree should have enough space between branches that a robin can fly through it – without getting hurt. Un-pruned tree? It’s a messy as an unmade bed. And climbing up an old apple on a blue-sky day to prune it makes me feel like a boy again. I can’t wait.

 

Henry Homeyer is a professional pruner and the author of 4 gardening books. Reach him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or henry.homeyer@comcast.net. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

 

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