Apple trees can be a great addition to many gardens. For very little investment in time, and taking up surprisingly little space, apple trees can provide a high yield each year once they begin to bear fruit. One of the main questions that novice gardeners have when it comes to caring for their apple trees is how to prune them. Read on to learn more about how to prune apple trees for a great harvest later in the year.
When To Prune Apple Trees
Apple trees are best pruned during the dormant period. In most of the northern hemisphere, this is between November and March. The important thing is to prune your apple trees after leaf-fall and before the sap begins to rise in the spring. Exactly when this will occur depends on where you live, and the conditions that are to be found locally. The timing of these events can not only vary depending on the climate in your area but will also vary according to weather conditions year on year.
In my personal experience, it is best to prune apple trees after the worst of the winter weather has passed, but before the spring. Pruning in late-winter/ early-spring will make it less likely that your apple trees will encounter any problems with disease or rot, which can set in when pruning cuts are made. Unlike other fruit trees like plums and cherries, however, apple trees are relatively resilient and usually don’t encounter any problems when pruned at any time over the winter. Pruning before leaf-burst in the late winter or early spring, however, will usually mean that the job is a little easier for you, as the gardener. The weather is usually a little less severe. Try to prune your apple trees on a clear, sunny day – ideally not immediately prior to any severe weather, so check the forecasts.
Apple trees will not usually need to be pruned when very young. If you buy a sapling, you will not usually need to prune for the first couple of years. That said, you may wish to prune for size and shape on a dwarf, espaliered or otherwise shaped example. We’ll discuss the reasons for pruning later in this article.
What Do I Need To Prune Apple Trees?
Before you get started with pruning apple trees, you should turn your attention to getting the right tools for the job. You will need some tree loppers to remove smaller branches and, if your tree is mature, may also need a pruning saw for larger limbs. Extendable loppers can make the job easier if you have larger trees, though you may still need a stepladder in order to reach some of the branches. Extendable loppers can be bought inexpensively in stores or online.
Whether you are buying new tools or using existing ones, it is important to make sure that your tools are in good condition. When pruning apple trees and other fruiting trees, it is vitally important that the blades cut cleanly through the wood. Jagged wounds and tears can damage your apple trees and make them more prone to infection or other problems.
Why Prune Apple Trees?
Once you have your tools at the ready and have a good day for pruning, before you begin it is a good idea to sit down and think about why you are pruning in the first place. There are several different reasons why you should prune your apple trees, and the reason or reasons that apply in your case will alter how you approach the job.
The first reason to prune apple trees is for the health of the tree. A healthy tree, stripped of dead or damaged branches, will be better able to flower and fruit and will provide you will a bigger harvest at the end of the season. By removing branches that may rub against one another, you can help to prevent damage from occurring later in the year. Cutting back growth to a degree can also improve the health of your apple trees by encouraging them to put more effort into growing fruit rather than excessive foliage. By thinning the canopy of an apple tree, you can also make sure that sunlight can reach the heart of the tree, and this too will promote a healthy yield come harvest time.
Another reason to prune apple trees is to reduce their size. This may be for their own health, as they may be outstripping the local resources. It may also be for our own reasons – to reduce the shade cast on surrounding growing areas, for example, or to maintain a view from the windows of our homes.
The third and final reason to prune apple trees is for shape. Where space is limited, or at a premium, apple trees can be shaped to form a low hedge, trained into a fan shape or espaliered against a wall. While, where possible, it is usually better to allow an apple tree shape to develop more or less naturally, in certain situations, pruning and training for shape can provide a valuable solution for home growers.
Pruning Apple Trees For Health
The health of your apple trees will usually be the primary concern when pruning. When pruning for the health of apple trees, the most important thing to remember is that you should be patient. Don’t do too much too fast. Begin by gradually removing any branches that are dead or broken.
After you have removed any dead or damaged material, it is time to think about opening up the canopy and creating a neat, open structure that will promote healthy flower and fruit formation in the months to come. View your tree from different angles and remove any branches that are touching or almost touching any others. These branches may damage one another when the tree moves in the wind. Experienced gardeners will tell you that it is best when looking at an apple tree, to determine whether a bird will be able to fly between all the branches. Where a bird could not do so, some pruning may be required. This rough rule of thumb may help you when trying to decide which branches to remove.
Pruning Apple Trees To Reduce The Size
Pruning apple trees to reduce their size also requires care and patience. Some very overgrown mature trees may need to be renovated over a number of years, as taking too much material in one go can damage them, and can also cause long vertical shoots to spoil the look and shape of your mature trees. It is best to take a little each year, rather than pruning a lot all in one go. Never take off more than one-third of the canopy in any one pruning session, even where an extreme reduction in size is expedient. With younger trees, you will usually only have to remove a small amount of material to keep the size of your tree in check.
Pruning Apple Trees To Shape
For aesthetic reasons, when pruning, you may wish to take a step back and look every now and then at the overall shape of your apple trees. You may, if you wish, remove any branches which you feel spoil the look, though take care not to take too much in one go. Trees trained into hedges or against walls will also need to be pruned for shape – any branches that cannot be trained into the required shape will usually be removed.
When pruning apple trees, of any kind, always keep in mind the reasons for pruning. Take care, go slow, and be patient. The good news is that apple trees are resilient and even if you make a mistake or two as you learn, your trees should still be fine. While often in the garden it is better to let nature take its course, apple trees will benefit from a little human intervention every now and then. Prune in the dormant season each year and your healthy trees should reward you with a bountiful harvest.