Pruning Apple Trees

Learn how to prune your apple tree so you can reap a bountiful harvest.
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October. 22, 2001 -- Apples are for eating and playing. They have a lot of stories, myths and superstitions behind them, especially for Halloween. (SHNS file photo)

Fruit trees must be pruned every year, usually during the dormant period. If you don't begin proper pruning early in the tree's life, the result is "alternate bearing," which means that one year's harvest is bountiful while the following year's is puny.

Apple trees are the most common fruit trees home gardeners choose to grow. Pruning is necessary in order to open up the tree canopy to sunlight and air circulation and promote fruit production and a healthy plant. Follow these tips to pruning your apple tree so you can reap a bountiful harvest year after year.

The Ideal Time to Prune Apple Trees

Apple trees should be pruned in late winter, but you can prune into the spring and summer if you must. Avoid pruning in the fall since this stimulates new growth at the same time the tree should be getting ready for winter. The new growth may not have a chance to harden off before cold temperatures and frost hit, which may lead to cold damage on the tree.

Pruning Tools

It's important to have the right tools for the job. Keep the following tools handy for when you prune:

  • Hand pruners. Use this tool to remove small branches and twigs. You'll probably use this tool the most, so keep them sharp and handy.
  • Loppers. Loppers have long handles and provide more leverage when pruning larger branches. They're typically used to prune branches larger than the width of your thumb, or about 1" diameter or more.
  • Folding saw. This tool is useful when pruning limbs larger than 3" in diameter.

Pole pruners. These consist of a blade attached to a long pole and are handy for reaching high branches.

Pruning

The first rule of pruning is to remove any dead, injured or diseased branches. When going to make a cut, look for the branch collar, which is the "wrinkled" part near the base where the branch is connected to the tree trunk. This portion of the tree has all the cells necessary to heal wounds. Never cut into the branch collar when pruning. Instead, make the cut just above the point where the branch collar flares.

During the first couple of years after planting, allow the tree to grow its roots and establish itself before doing any pruning. It's good to prune away dead, injured or diseased branches immediately after planting up to the third year.

Begin heavier pruning in the third year of growth. First, remove any dead, injured or diseased branches. Then moving up the tree, look for branch angles, or scaffolding branches which are branches that grow from the main trunk, preferably evenly spaced, at 45- or 50-degree angles. Leave these scaffolding branches for the basic framework of your tree.

Fruiting buds are dark-colored, wrinkled wood that grows from scaffolding branches. Leave these small branches since they're the ones that produce fruit. Trees begin to form fruiting buds at around three years of age.

Vegetative buds are similar in appearance to fruiting buds, but they're not so wrinkled and dark. These buds form leaves and new branches.

Remove any competing branches that will cause problems for the tree. Sometimes these branches create a hollow where water can collect and encourage rot. Look for branches growing toward the inside of the tree, and remove them to improve air circulation. When you remove a branch or a limb, the bud directly under the cut will take over and grow. For this reason, you should cut above outward-facing buds.

A fruit tree should have only one central leading branch. Don't allow two leader branches to form, or the tree will become weak. Identify the healthier or stronger leader, and remove the other. The ideal apple tree has one central leader surrounded by evenly spaced scaffolding branches that have plenty of fruiting spurs.

Tip: If your apple tree is lacking the scaffolding branches, or the lower branches that are actually good on an apple tree, you can force them to come out. Find a bud and use a knife to make a nick a millimeter above and below it. Then cut the notch between the nicks completely out, making sure to cut through the bark and the green layer beneath it. That will force the tree to grow a new branch on the spot.

Thinning Fruit

During seasons of good weather, the apple tree may produce an overabundance of fruit, causing fruit "crowding" on the branches and resulting in smaller-sized apples. In order to grow tasty, normal-sized apples, it may be necessary to thin out the fruit. Generally speaking, fruit should be spaced about 6 inches apart along the branches; thin out closely grown apples and select out the smaller-sized ones in favor of the larger fruits.

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