To get the best quality fruit, apple trees need to be pruned and thinned. This is a daunting task to most homeowners and something that keeps many from trying to grow apples. But homeowners with a little common sense and good tools should be able to prune their apple trees well enough to get good fruit results.
In this article we will discuss some general considerations for apple tree pruning. It is always better to see the technique rather than to read about it. In some areas classes are held in late winter to show homeowners how to prune fruit trees. These are often sponsored by the local Extension office or a garden club.
Why Do Apple Trees Need Pruning?
If an apple tree was allowed to develop naturally it would still produce fruit. The apples will be smaller and fewer though because the tree will be using a lot of energy to support all the branches. Pruning opens up the tree so that apples developing in the center get sunlight and the airflow decreases disease problems. Pruning also controls the height of the tree so the homeowner can continue to pick the fruit and spray the trees easily.
Pruning should be done a little each year and not drastically in a year when you realize suddenly that you haven't been taking care of the trees. If the trees have been neglected it is better to take several years to get the trees back in shape rather than trying to do it all at once.
What Tools Are Needed?
To prune apple trees you will need hand pruners, loppers and a tree saw. All of these tools should be kept sharp. If you start when the tree is young you may not need a ladder, but if the tree has been neglected a ladder will be necessary. It is a good practice to clean the tools with rubbing alcohol between trees.
How to Begin
Pruning should begin the first winter after you plant your apple tree. Apple trees should always be pruned in late winter, just before the tree begins to show green on the leaf buds.
During the growing season, the small tree should have put out some vertical,[top], growth. Cut this back by about a third. If two branches have grown strongly vertically to form a forked top, one should be removed. If the tree did not grow much, less than a foot taller than when you planted it, don't remove any height.
Remove any branches that have grown out of the trunk lower than 2 foot from the ground. Now examine the small tree. The goal is to eventually have evenly spaced branches in a spiral pattern in tiers around the tree. The main branches should join the trunk at an angle close to 90 degrees. This type of angle supports the weight of fruit better and is less likely to break in storms. Branches growing out at a good angle seem to develop flower buds faster than those that go upward and produce more flowers.
You want to preserve branches that grow out horizontally at a good angle from the tree and that do not cross or rub other branches. Remove damaged and broken branches
and branches growing straight up, other than the main trunk or leader. The first winter there may not be a lot of branches that need to be removed.
Small branches can be trained to grow at a better angle by using spreaders. This works on branches less than pencil size in diameter. A spreader is simply a piece of wood or plastic with a fork on each end. One end goes against the tree trunk and the other against the limb and then is adjusted until it pushes the branch into a 90 degree angle with the tree. An old fashioned wood clothespin can be clipped on the stem and used to spread tiny branches. All spreaders should be removed the next winter when you go back to prune the tree.
The next year you will follow pretty much the same pattern. Remove a third of the top and any branches that are trying to become second leaders. Thin out branches so that they are in tiered levels, with the tiers about a foot apart and the branches in the tiers are not directly over a branch in the lower tier. Prune off small branches coming off the main branches that grow toward the inside of the tree.
When you look at a properly pruned apple tree it will look very skimpy next to an untrimmed tree, especially before it leafs out. Don't worry, this is the healthiest and most productive tree.
Always prune off water sprouts as soon as they develop, even during the growing season. These are small branches that grow on the trunk, below where the first level of branches is developing. They may also sprout up out of the ground from the roots.
As the apple tree grows older continue this pattern. When the tree reaches a certain height, say 12 foot for semi-dwarf trees, you may want to limit it to that height each year. If branches grow out horizontally until the tree seems off balance you can trim them back.
All growth that wants to go straight up off main branches should be trimmed off. Trim off side branches that touch or rub other branches.
Pruning cuts should be made as close to the trunk as possible, do not leave a collar. The cuts do not need any pruning paint or sealer.
Trimming Old Neglected Trees
If an apple tree has been neglected for many years it is possible to bring it back into a more manageable state, but it will take time and effort. Do not just lop the top off the tree. It needs to be lowered slowly and about a third of the branches removed each year. Large branches will probably require a chain saw for removal. This is a job that you may want to have an experienced person do. It will not produce much fruit during this time. Before you begin have someone examine the tree to make sure it is sound and healthy.
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