The Fine Art of Pruning an Apple Tree

When it’s time for apple tree pruning you need to follow some basic rules or the end result could be disastrous. As August sets in, an apple tree orchard should be full of beautiful green leafy trees laden with fruit. Unfortunately, apple orchards can become contaminated with fungus causing the leaves to become badly blemished and disfigured. Pruning correctly and at the right time of year, ideally in the winter, is the best way to avoid this but done badly it can cause more damage.

It’s an unfortunate fact that an apple tree can be overly pruned. Coupled with shoddy care (or no care at all) such clumsy pruning gives the tree an open door to retaliate. The tree begins to grow with a vengeance in a completely unbalanced manner. This is why you should purchase an apple tree on the appropriate root stock. You can acquire rootstock from a dwarf-size M9 to a 15 foot MM10G.

Though poor pruning can devastate your apple trees, done properly it can reinstate them to perfect condition and render them fruitful once again. The winter season is typically the time to do restorative type pruning but in situations where poor crops are rampant, it can be beneficial to proceed with restorative pruning straight away.

Some varieties of trees are tip-bearers and some are spur-bearers, producing the fruit nearer to the branches. Bramley and Discovery trees bear fruit both at the tips and near the branches; however, the majority of apple trees are spur-bearer trees. A tip-bearer may render a smaller crop the following year, if you prune it now.

When you are ready to prune your apple trees, here are some tips to follow for trees with branches up to 3″ in diameter. You should not make it a DIY project when the trees are larger—hire a tree surgeon instead as the job will require the use of a chainsaw. Listed here are the items necessary for pruning:

  • Secateurs
  • Chalk
  • Pruning saw (which folds down to pocket-carrying size) or a wood saw (which cost a lot less, though it can still stand tough against cutting large branches)
  • Ladder
  • Short rope for securing your apple tree
  • Container to hold any rotten fruit.

Once your materials are at hand, you’re ready to start. Below are five easy steps to proper pruning followed by specific instructions for young and mature trees, restoration and summer pruning.

Step #1: The set-up for pruning

Position the ladder towards the tree so that it’s wedged firmly against a strong branch that’s close to the part you are going to cut off. Take a section of rope, double loop it round the ladder rung that’s nearest the branch it’s leaning against and secure it using a granny knot. Next, climb onto the ladder and inspect the tree carefully. The branches should have a vase-shape as they extend from the tree’s trunk. When a tree has been badly pruned, you will see numerous unfruitful stems extending upright from the centre. You must get rid of these stems, plus any crossing, infected, or already dead boughs. After that, the middle of the tree will be open for air flow to the fruit and leaves; this lessens scab, mildew and other fungus infection which ruins the fruit and leaves by leaving black patches. Place a chalk mark on the underside of the branches you intend to remove, then go back down to the ground and look up to make sure you have marked the correct branches prior to cutting them. Taking off perfectly healthy branches and leaving infected ones is definitely not what you are setting out to accomplish. Don’t get frustrated at having to go up and down the ladder—the end result could be worse if you don’t double-check.

Step #2: Let’s begin to prune

Position yourself on a step of the ladder where you are comfortable and secure in reaching downward to cut. One at a time choose which bough you are going to work on and cut that particular bough off little by little rather than all at once. It is best to start cutting from the underside, then from the upper side of the bough. This way, in instances when the bough breaks early, a smaller amount of bark will come off when the branch starts falling down. Move your ladder around and secure it to the tree each time you start on a different part. Always lower your cut sections to the ground as close as you can to the trunk of the tree so as to lessen damage to fruit and healthy branches.

Step #3: Finishing the cut properly

Your last cut needs to be in conjunction with the branch collar, which is a raised bark ring at the point where the branch is attached to the tree trunk or interconnects with another branch. The reason for this is the concentration of growth cells in these particular joints. The bark will regenerate more rapidly and the cuts will be sealed quicker.

Step #4: Now make use of the secateurs

Use these to totally remove the vertical wands shooting up from the trunk as well as from central tree branches. In instances where a branch has broken off, leave a couple of wands to fill in the unsightly gap. Then, to prevent overgrowth, thin out the sprouts at the tips of the branches by removing every third sprout.

Step #5: An ounce of prevention…

While you are up amongst the tree leaves, pick off all the rotted and dried-out apples. Burn these or place them deep in your compost heap so that their fungus will not infest your new crops.

Your finished apple tree should be void of whippy sprouts, filled with circulating air, and allowing the light to shine down abundantly through the canopy.

Now some specific instructions for young and mature trees, restoration and summer pruning…

Young trees:

  • Remove any material that is overcrowded, crossing, weak, dead etc.
  • To get a stocky, strong structure, shorten the leaders (year-old end growths, both in the top and sides of the tree) by 2/3.
  • To get stronger growth from weak leaders, cut harder back.
  • To get less vigorous growth from strong shoots, just tip back.
  • Prune to a bud facing the direction you want it to grow.
  • If in grass, a good wide weed-free ring (at least 1m across, and preferably mulched) really helps young trees.

Mature trees where size is more or less ok:

  • Remove any material that is overcrowded, crossing, weak, dead etc. Remove all ‘water shoots’ (these are thin vertical growths growing up into the centre of the canopy). Then:

Spur bearing trees (ie most varieties)

  • Shorten annual growth on weak leaders (year-old end growths, both in the top and sides of the tree) by 1/2 or more and strong leaders by 1/4 or less. Prune to a bud facing the direction you want it to grow.
  • Shorten or remove overcrowded spurs.

Tip bearing trees eg Bramley and Discovery (these have fewer spurs and a longer stem length between side growths)

  • Cut right out a proportion of the leaders – about 50%.
  • Tip back leaders (just lightly) to remove very end weight of fruit.

Mature trees needing renovation or reduction in size:

  • Remove any material that is overcrowded, crossing, weak, dead etc. Clean up the lower trunk.
  • Remove a proportion of branches completely to open up, both centre of tree and canopy. This will let the air and light circulate through, helping ripening and minimising fungal problems.
  • Thin out growth along the remaining branches to leave spaced apart and room to develop.
  • Try to leave a proportion of unpruned material – if done heavily all over, regrowth will be vigorous and non-fruiting.

Restoring a heavily-lopped tree:

  • Remove a proportion of the regrowths (half or more), to leave spaced apart with room to develop.
  • Tip-prune remainder to promote branching (prune to a bud facing the direction you want it to grow).
  • Best done over 2 or 3 years or more….

Summer pruning (cordons, fans, espaliers):

  • Restricts growth, encourages fruit buds to form, allows air circulation and helps fruit ripen.
  • Leave shorter lateral annual growths but prune all others to 2”
  • Thin out overcrowded spurs.

Need some pruning done by experts? Call Tree Maintenance Ltd.
on 01285 760 466 for service you know you can trust.

Speak to an expert member of our team today
Nick Organ

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