Pruning Apple Trees for Health and a Bumper Home Harvest

Here are some simple techniques for pruning apple trees and for managing and avoiding disease in your trees.

Pruning your apple trees can seem quite scary if you are the owner of a brand new tree - or three.

What is there to it?

In practice pruning apple trees is quite simple. If you are buying new trees from a nursery always ask about pruning. It won't generally be necessary to start with.

The general principles of pruning are quite easy:
Prune to get rid of dead or diseased wood;
Prune to shape the tree and prune to stimulate fruiting.

Those are the main reasons to prune.

Let's expand on that a bit.

Pruning apple trees to remove dead and diseased wood

If a tree has been left for a while without attention there are likely to be lots of dead or weakly branches cluttering up the tree. Rather than leaving them to eventually fall off it is far better to weed them out systematically. Any branches which cross other branches or twigs which cross other twigs can also be taken out. If it's a choice between two twigs, or two branches, select the stronger or more developed ones. Also bear in mind the direction and shape of the branch and tree when making your decision. If there are signs of rot or disease cut the wood back.

Use a pruning saw for best results on larger branches. Secateurs or other loppers are OK on smaller branches. Try to cut so that the fresh wound will not hold moisture - at the angle of a "/" is good (around 45 degrees or steeper). Cut as cleanly as possible so as not to expose more of the tree than necessary.

This is one aspect of pruning which should be done at least once a year, during the winter season when the sap is more dormant in the tree.

Improving shape by pruning apple trees

Each year it is also worth taking some time to maintain and improve the shape of your apple trees. Obviously, this depends upon the shape you have selected to grow. If you have a Ballerina for example you will want to maintain that pole shape for years to come. Bushes and pyramid shapes, too need a little attention to keep them in shape.

For pyramids and bush shapes you should try to encourage a bit of space and light into the centre of the tree. That is not to say that you take out the whole centre; just stop the central area from becoming congested. Also remove any branches which threaten to hang too low for safety or convenience.

You want the branches to fan out in such a way that the leaves access lots of light and space. There needs to be ample room for fruit to develop.

Pruning apple trees to promote heavy crops

Lastly you want to prune your apple trees to promote good fruiting.

The key to this is to do a little each year. Only prune hard if there is a lot of non-productive growth. It is quite natural for many varieties of apple to fruit poorly one year and bountifully the next. Always do most of your pruning in the dormant winter months.

I always err on the side of doing too little - on the basis that you can always do a bit more next year. So far so good - I get some quite heavy crops.

If you want a good book on pruning, Pruning Made Easy: A gardener's visual guide to when and how to prune everything, from flowers to trees is probably one of the very best available as the illustrations are so clear.

Pruning apple trees: Tip or spur?

Before doing any extensive pruning to improve fruiting you need to know whether your tree is a tip bearer or a spur bearer. Tip bearers produce new fruit right at the growing tip. Bramley's Seedling is such a tree. If you prune these active growing tips you will get less fruit. Concentrate on getting good shape and light into the tree.

Some people like to put in a small extra prune in summer. This technique is suitable for spur-bearing cordons and espaliers. It helps promote larger fruit and is usually done around August. I haven't tried it as I'm sticking with the simpler tree shapes for now.

If you over-do the pruning you are likely to get a lot of foliage an not so much fruit. If you go the other way and prune too little you will get small and poorly formed fruits.

Pruning apple trees: Undoing years of neglect

If you acquire a property with neglected fruit trees it may take a few years to get them back into decent production.

Our large apple tree had been completely butchered by the previous residents and had no proper branches at all. They had all been sawn off! The tree had struggled to make amends by growing what looked like witches hair - a weird top of skinny new vertical growth. We took most of that off and allowed a few of the stronger ones to grow from the ends of where the branches had been sawn off.

Over a few years the tree gradually came back to productive life. It's still not perfect after ten tears or more but it's got strong and well developed branches with lots of fruit and it looks like a proper tree again.

Combating pests and diseases

This page and this site is not really about perfection and if you want to grow immaculate fruit which could grace the shelves of your supermarket, perhaps you will need a more expert site - the RHS is good. This page deals with common problems and solutions only!

Codling moth is often a problem with apple trees. The moths lay their eggs and the larvae tunnel into the centre of the apples. You can prevent this by a timely collar of cardboard around the trunk of the tree. Pheromone traps are another alternative. The male moth can smell the attractive pheromones and is lured to its death on the sticky surface of the trap. A pheromone trap is unlikely to completely sort the problem. If you do choose to use them make sure they are bird friendly in design. Nemotodes are also used to control codling moths.

Scab is a common problem which leaves unsightly dark spots on affected apples and leaves. It does not impair the flavour or usefulness of the fruit too much but it may distort the fruit if its allowed and it may affect the keeping quality of the fruit.

You can select apple trees which are resistant.

If you have affected trees a sulphur spray will kill the spores. This is usually regarded as compatible with organic growing and is fairly harmless. I've not tried it. You should sweep up leaf fall as the fungus can be spread this way. The spores move about in wind and rain and thus spread to other trees.

Powdery mildew is a fungal complaint which may affect the leaves. The treatment recommended is the same as for scab. The best course is to buy resistant varieties and avoid damp airless areas when planting them.

Good hygiene

Good garden hygiene can help prevent and minimise some of these problems. Remove diseased fruit and leaves and burn them. Keep the base of the tree free from weeds and other debris. Feed the tree with good quality organic compost and practice annual pruning. If you do most of these things you will have few problems and your fruit harvest will be big and beautiful!

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Other pages that relate to pruning apple trees which may interest you:

Growing Apple Trees - Pollination and Planting

Growing Apples for a Bountiful Home Harvest - Sizes, Soils and Rootstocks

Fruit Tree Orchards and Community Growers

Return from Pruning Apple Trees back to Green Orchards - Growing Fruit Trees

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