Pruning fruit trees is an often-neglected task by the backyard gardener. Most people don’t know how to prune, what to prune, when or why? Usually the task is thought of but no action is taken. Without the proper knowledge how can one even start?
Let’s look at each topic carefully. First why prune? There are many reasons. Some will depend on the age of the tree. With a young tree we want to shape it properly so with age it will have the desired structure to potentially bear fruit of good quality over a long time. With older trees, pruning out any damaged branches, water sprouts, & creating enough open areas for proper light penetration becomes important. Apple trees need lots of sunlight on the fruit to get good fruit coloration & their peak flavor!
Tools required for pruning are a good quality hand pruning shears, a pruning saw (for larger branch removal) & a ladder. The best time to prune is February & March but it can be done in spring until the leaves appear. Yes you can summer prune (new growth only) but that is a specialized topic. Avoid pruning late summer/fall unless there is no choice as is the case with limb breakage from storms.
Small branches can be pruned off with the hand pruners. Please take care to not flush cut directly against the trunk when removing the branch! Leave a small stub known as the branch collar. If you look at branches where they are attached to the trunk you can usually see a raised area that will vary in thickness depending on the diameter of the branch. Always cut off a branch leaving this raised area intact. This wound will heal over much quicker if the branch collar is not removed!
If you need to remove branches larger than your pruners can cut off then use a pruning saw. Pruning saws usually cut on the draw not the push of the blade (just the opposite of regular wood saws). However I now see there are some pruning saws out on the market that cut either way. Pruning saws also traditionally have a curved shape to the blade although again some of the more recent models out do not.
If the branch to be removed is very large it is advised to first remove the branch a foot beyond the trunk then cut off the stub up to the branch collar. Due to the heavy weight of the branch, if you cut first at the branch collar the branch may tear off of the trunk as the cut is near completion thus causing a jagged wound which is hard to heal. The best approach is to go 12” beyond the branch collar and first make a cut on the bottom side of the branch about ¼ thru the branch (relief cut). Then go 6” farther out and cut thru the branch on the topside. Now if the branch breaks off near the end of the cut it will not damage the trunk. Finally go back to the branch collar and cut off the remaining stub.
Lets start with the shaping of young apple trees. An easy form to train dwarf or semi-dwarf apple trees is the central leader system. What we want is for the tree to have only one main leader & 5-7 major branches. The first pruning should occur at planting time if planting in the spring. If planting potted apple trees during summer or fall then it is best to wait until the following spring & prune when dormant.
We want only one main leader. The tallest upright growth at the top of the tree coming off of the trunk is the main leader. If there are several leaders then remove all but one. If there is one that is the tallest but several that are slightly shorter then the others can be removed or can be severely cut back to an existing bud so that they no longer will compete with the leader. Throughout the life of your tree always keep the top pruned to just one main leader!
Next remove excess branches so that eventually only 5-7 remain. This is done over a several year period and branches kept one year can be removed the next. Remember as the tree gets taller more lateral branches form. The objective in keeping a total of only 5-7 lateral branches is to prevent the tree from becoming so dense that it shades itself out causing poor fruit color/flavor. Properly shaped/pruned apple trees will allow sunlight in throughout the tree. These 5-7 branches should be spaced a few feet apart in height & should be scattered throughout all sides of the tree.
As the tree ages any branches that grow straight up off of the top side of the existing 5-7 lateral branches or grow out of old pruning cuts and have extremely rapid growth are called water sprouts. These rampant growths should be removed each spring pruning. If they are numerous they can also be summer pruned if done by mid-July. Outside of storm damage, this is the only summer pruning that can be done! Also with age if certain branches are not getting enough sunlight to get good fruit color then remove some of the existing branches to allow the light in. Thinning out the tree canopy often is necessary on older trees.
Pruning can get more technical than this but this should give you a general idea on what to do. Initially it can be very intimidating. Remember it is far better to prune than not prune at all. Make a mistake? Don’t worry, as plants are a lot tougher than you think. Usually people don’t prune enough off! Never look at the ground & decide to quit due to what appears to be an awfully large amount of prunings already the ground. There is an old orchardist’s saying “ the pruning isn’t done until you can throw your hat thru the tree without it getting caught!”