TODAY DWARF AND SEMI-DWARF varieties of apples and other fruit trees are the norm, but when the half-dozen or so apple trees that remain from the old, old orchard I garden in were planted, the norm was full-size or standard trees. Their shapes were barely visible when I bought the property, overgrown with a combination of their own unnecessary, thicket-like growth and miles of multiflora roses and grapevines. Over a course of three years, the trees were brought back to some state of civility. This required aggressively employing two basic methods, which you, too, can use to improve the shape and yield of an overgrown fruit tree. The time is now.
First, each and every year, remove all the water sprouts or suckers—thin, whip-like wood that juts straight up from the main limbs but could never support any fruit—with a folding saw or pruning shears, by cutting down to the supporting branch and leaving behind no trace of the sucker or its swollen base. You can see the unpruned old trees in the picture at left; that’s the same tree as up top, but unpruned. A detail of vertical sprouts (in an old magnolia, not an apple) is below that, with blue-sky background: You’d remove the four distinctly upright shoots in mid-photo and just to the left of that.
Then there’s the hard part: taking out big branches. Step back and evaluate the tree, or even better take pictures. One of the great things about the digital age: You don’t have to make duplicate sets of prints of your photos, like I used to do before drawing on one set as if to graphically “prune” out some wood before making any real cuts. With your favorite photo-editing program like Picnik or Photoshop Elements, black out the branches you think the tree would eventually be better without. How does it look now, “without” them?
The basic idea is to open the center of the tree up from the congestion too many branches create, which prevents light and air circulation from getting in there, and also to lower the crown if possible. Never remove more than one-third of the tree’s live wood in any year. It will take at least three years, therefore, to accomplish what you imagine when you “pruned” the expendable parts of the tree out of the snapshot. Before getting started, read my Pruning Basics (which turn anybody into at least an acceptable pruner): Start by taking out dead and damaged wood, then any crossed or rubbing branches (remove the weaker or less well placed one).
When removing large branches, first reduce the weight of the limb by cutting off half of it. Pruning is a three-step process, to prevent tearing. The first cut is always an undercut, made no more than halfway through the branch from underneath. Next, an uppercut, from the top, just slightly farther out on the limb from the undercut, will leave a stepped-off stub.
If the limb is still very heavy and long, repeat the first two steps until you have still less weight. Then begin the final cut near the trunk, a one-step cut from above or below, depending on what angle suits the tree best. Make this just outside the branch-bark collar or ridge, which on many trees is a visibly raised spot where trunk and limb tissue meet. Never cut into the collar; but never leave a big stub, either. The tree will heal itself without wound paint; just leave the collar intact.
Reminder: Read my basics. (Or else.) :)