Tuesday, March 19, 2013


When we moved onto our "town" property 14 years ago, the three big, old apple trees had not been pruned in quite a while. Since we had no experience with that we sought out some expert advice.

In our area, the Home Orchard Society is a great resource. We went and got a little tutorial to help us get started. I thought I would share some of what I learned then and have picked up over the years. I am no authority, so I will offer it up in the spirit of conversation rather than education.
I took away three big lessons:

-The right time to prune is when your pruners are sharp. This means that it is better to prune when you can then wait for the perfect time of year. Apple trees are very forgiving. I just finished pruning my trees today, and it is certainly not the best time of year. Each branch that falls through the tree after I cut it hits others, potentially damaging the fruit buds that are showing now. But now is when I can do it, and it is more important to lighten the load and avoid limbs breaking than worry about getting every apple possible.
-Give yourself 3 years to reign in an overgrown tree. The overgrown tree has a root system big enough to feed the whole mess of a tree. When you prune you do not diminish the energy the roots are going to push into the tree, so there will be more energy than the now-smaller tree needs. That energy will turn into massive new growth. Figure out how much you want to take off the tree, and do 1/3 of it each year for 3 years.
-Take out limbs, not branches. With one cut you can take off a limb with several branches and tons of twigs. Try to cut out the biggest wood you can. It will save you time and effort. And since new growth will come where you have pruned, one cut at the trunk will inspire less new wood than a bunch of cuts along the length of a branch.
When shaping your tree you want a nice, open structure, with good airflow, no branches rubbing, and no branch shading another. I also try to be aware of potential weight on the branches, because when they are laden with apples it adds a lot of weight, which can cause the branch to break.

Keeping them high enough above the ground is a big deal too. You want to make it easy to get under the tree for mowing, walking and picking. I sometimes get a little stingy, trying to keep more apples than I should. Phoebe did a nice job of pruning them up last year, when I was letting them hang too low. 

The basic tools I use are hand pruners, loppers and a pruning saw. A chainsaw on a stick can be very handy, depending on the height of your tree. 

And you need a way to get into the tree. Phoebe bought me a 17' orchard ladder, which is a fabulous tool for these big trees. Orchard ladders have 3 legs, which gives you a stable platform on uneven ground. I wish I had a shorter one too, like a 12', for getting in around the base of the tree.
You can use an extension ladder for a lot of pruning, but it has to rest pretty close to the trunk to be well supported. An orchard ladder can be used during harvest too, getting you out at the end of the branches, where an extension ladder will not have the support.

I took the three years needed to get the trees into good shape. Since then it has been about maintaining them. A big task every year is taking off the water sprouts. These are the little whippy branches that poke out every year, like in the photo below. 99% of them have to go, or they will turn into the branches that overgrow the tree again.
The 1%? I am always strategizing about where I want to encourage new growth. If there is a hole, I will leave a few sprouts to see if one can fill it. In the photo below, I hope the one I saved will grow into a big limb to fill an open spot.
I had a major limb break out of one of the trees. It probably took out 15% of in one go. I was very sad. I have about 6 sprouts I am letting grow. I can decide in a few years which is the winner, and take the rest off then.
Here is a look at a spot where I made a bunch of cuts. Mostly I removed branches that were under others, and therefore shaded by them. My goal here was primarily weight reduction, but the improved airflow should make the apples happier.

Most years I do lose some medium sized limbs; Self-pruning I call it. This one is still attached by enough bark that the rest of the limb is still alive. Since it was in a helpful spot I decided to leave it.
I took a bunch of the branches off it so it will be less likely to finish breaking. I hope I can get a couple more years out of it, buying time for its replacement to get big. In the photo below, you can see the break above and left of the top of the ladder.
My biggest tree will generate hundreds of branches cut out a year. Fortunately this day the boys had made a fire to burn up the brush pile. Hank was nice enough to hang out and pick up the branches as I cut them, which was sooo helpful. (The lumber is for a new chicken pen.)
It may not look like much, but I am pretty happy with the tree in the photo below. There is a lot more space and a lot less weight. I think it will do well this year.
The trees will be in bloom in a few weeks. Check back and I will show you how they look.


  1. The biggest problem with waiting to prune your trees is their age and how many branches, branch off of the branches, hahaha. You don't want to stand around all fall raking up branches and leaves.

    -EverGreen Tree & Shrub Inc.
    Tree Service New York

  2. I've heard a lot of pruning horror stories -- from accidents due to falling branches to losing the tree because of too much cutting. With fruit trees being a valuable asset to any home, getting expert advice was a great idea. Thanks for sharing what you've learned as well! -Jeanene @ Green Touch Tree Care


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