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In Grow Fruit

Trimming Apple Trees: When and How to Prune Apple Trees

how to prune apple trees

Trimming apple trees, otherwise called pruning, means shaping  trees by cutting off twigs, stems and branches. It’s important to prune apple trees to ensure good fruit production and healthy trees. Although it’s true that in the wild apple trees are “pruned” only by the wind and weather, in the backyard garden, pruning helps shape apple trees to prevent wind damage and to encourage abundant fruit.

when to prune apple trees

Here’s when – and how – to prune apple trees.

Trimming Apple Trees

Apple trees should be pruned in late winter. This is the ideal time for trimming apple trees for several reasons:

  • The tree is bare of leaves, so you can see its shape. I’ll get into why this is important later.
  • Cuts made while the tree is dormant  are less likely to become infected.
  • Pruning stimulates new growth. The tree senses that branches have been cut off and puts energy into growth. This encourages growth in the spring, an optimal time for plant development.

Find a Day When You Can Be Outside for Trimming Apple Trees

We like to pick a day and time when we have plenty of time and aren’t rushed. Rushing through trimming apple trees leads to mistakes like taking off too many branches or shaping trees the wrong way.  We currently have 9 apple trees plus about 20 other fruit trees throughout the orchard and our little hobby farm and we tackle pruning in two or three sessions in February each year.

I also like to pick a day when it’s fairly warm so that I’m not freezing while we prune. It’s hard to handle the pruning shears, loppers, and saw when you’re all bundled up with gloves and scarves and things.  Depending on your climate, you may have to dress for the weather, but I much prefer a day when the temperatures are around 40 or  50 F and it’s sunny out.  There’s a hint of spring in the air and it’s just nice to be outside again after the winter.

Pruning Tools: What You Need

You don’t need fancy, expensive tools for pruning, but you do need your tools to be clean and sharp.

To prune apple trees and other fruit trees, you will need:

  • Hand pruners: Buy the best hand pruners you can afford because you’ll use them a lot in the garden. I like Felco pruners because you can remove the blades and replace or sharpen them, but we also have Fiskars pruners which are a good option. I like nice thick grips on the handles and brightly colored handles so I can find them if I put them down in the garden.
  • Loppers: Loppers have a long handle and a blade that opens wider so you have both more leverage and a wider area to cut the branches. Loppers are used on small branches.
  • Pruning saw: Pruning saws are used on larger branches. Ours has a folding blade that tucks inside the handle with a safety latch.

Rubbing Alcohol, the Forgotten Tool for Trimming Apple Trees

I rarely see this listed among pruning tools but it’s the one tool I can’t live without, and here’s why. Rubbing alcohol kills bacteria and microorganisms that can cause diseases. When you cut into a tree branch, you introduce an open wound on the tree and microorganisms can be transmitted from one tree to another through these cuts.

Think about a surgeon. Would you want a surgeon operating on you with  a knife he used on the last patient and didn’t sterilize it between operations? If you just shuddered and went “ick!” then you get it. Trees, like people, can contract diseases through cuts introduced by pruning tools. Clean your tools between trees. Take the rag, pour alcohol on it, and swipe the wet rag over the cutting surface (taking care not to cut yourself in the process).

I wipe down my pruning tools between trees, not between cuts. A clean, empty coffee can  filled with the bottle of rubbing alcohol and your rags is a good way to carry it around the yard. Rubbing alcohol is available in the first aid aisle of any drug store.

How to Prune Apple Trees

I only prune apple trees after they’ve been established for at least 3 years. This gives the tree plenty of time to put down roots. By waiting to prune your tree, you’ll give it plenty of time to use those leaves and branches for photosynthesis to make food for growth and development.

After three years, it may be time to start pruning. Use your judgment – if the tree looks scrawny, leave it alone. We have one tree that’s almost 10 years old and we rarely prune it and we’ve had some that needed a bit of shaping after the first year or so.

  • Start by pruning any dead, broken, or damaged limbs.
  • Next, stand back and look at the tree. Apple trees are pruned into ladder shapes.  Imagine a child climbing the branches of the tree using the branches as ladders. That’s the shape you want your apple tree branches pruned into – alternating “ladder” branches.

The branches on this young apple tree in my orchard are pruned into “ladder rungs.” Image a child climbing the tree – he’d need rungs to reach the top. Apple trees are pruned with plenty of space between the branches.

Mature branches laden with apples in my backyard orchard. The space between the ‘rungs’ of the branches lets air and light reach the apples to help them develop.

 

When in doubt, leave a branch alone. You can always go back and prune more later but you can’t fix a tree that’s been overly pruned.

I remove “water spouts” or small twig-branches that shoot straight up from the branch. I also take out smaller branches growing from main branches, like the one in the picture above, to encourage energy to go into fruit production on the main branches.

All of the twigs, branches and stems we cut from the trees are gathered and carted into the woods where I drop them off to let them decompose naturally. We have 17 acres of woods so that gives us plenty of room. Diseased branches are bagged for the trash or burned.

The first time I trimmed apple trees, I thought I’d ruin them. The books all made it sound like rocket science. As the years go by, I feel more confident in my ability to prune fruit trees including our apple trees. It’s all part of learning homesteading skills.

 

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2 In Grow Fruit

The Beauty of an Old Apple Tree

Yesterday, Hubby, Shadow and I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail from Hog Camp Gap called the Tar Jacket Ridge. We hiked out about 5 miles, ate lunch and rested, and then return hiked to our car. It was a glorious day for an autumn hike, with trees like this:

IMG_4748 Appalachian trail trees

Does fall get any better than this? Clear blue skies, crisp air, and golden leaves everywhere? One section of the trail floor looked like stained glass from the swirls of purple, crimson, ochre and gold leaves everywhere. And the scent. The scent! Of fall! Crisp leaves. Woodland vistas. Mountains.

And apples.

One of the most interesting things on the Tar Jacket Ridge Trail are the remnants of the old homesteads up on the mountain. An old stone wall, built by hand with rocks piled up, greeted us at one section. Apple trees, so heavily laden with fruit that their boughs touched the earth, graced several sections of the trail. I lost count of how many trees remained along the trail.

Here is one…what a stately grandfather he is:

apple tree on trail

I wish I knew how old the trees were. Look at the apples on that tree!

It gives me hope for my own apple trees. Sure, my trees are only about 7 years old. But these apple trees, guarding the Appalachian Trail as they do, receive NO care whatsoever. No pruning, no spraying, no fertilizing, no babying. It’s just whatever Mother Nature throws their way winter, spring, summer and fall. They seem to flourish from neglect.

We took home two different apple varieties and will try to grow some from seed. Growing apples from seed is a tricky business. Apple genetics being what they are, the seeds may be true to type, or they may revert to any of the genetic stock found within the parent plant. Grafting has left apples with as gnarled and a twisted DNA as any human family tree. But it will be an interesting experiment, for sure, and I am simply hoping for a tough tree, like this one, that will produce apples for canning, juice and cider.

The entire hike was 10.25 miles and I am feeling it today, mostly in my calves. Shadow, our dog, was a trooper. She hikes with her own backpack. Her we are on the trail yesterday. I am already missing the forest…the trees…the birds and the cool breezes….

Jeanne Shadow

Although there’s so much work left to do in the garden before the anticipated freeze this weekend, it’s equally as important to savor every day, and especially to refresh and replenish your soul. For me, that means a day spent with my two loves – my husband and my dog – and spending it in the place I love best, the woods and the mountains.