fruit-tree pruning: a future investment

Century-old apple tree prunedTODAY 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.

apple-pruningFirst, 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.

magnolia-pruning-2Then 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 Picmonkey 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.) :)

  1. millie rossman kidd says:

    Hi Margaret, I’m assuming when you say apple and other fruit trees you’re including cherry trees?

    We have sour cherry and have never been able to harvest fruit. The birds always seem to get to it first. I don’t mind sharing…

    But it would be healthier for the tree and make it more attractive to prune it?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Millie, and yes, cherries would appreciate a thinning/cleaning out.

      As for birds: I wonder if perhaps it would be good to try hanging some of those bird-repellent “scarecrows” (non-toxic, just scary). Orchardists use them; they’re like big inflatable ballons with shiny “eyes” that frighten the birds.

      I’m including this link to the standard model by Dalen (I couldn’t find it for sale at a place I could guarantee I’d used before, but it’s often sold in Agway and other farm or hardware stores and nurseries). Under $10. This is the kind of device you will see hanging throughout you-pick farms and such.

  2. millie rossman kidd says:

    Thanks, that’s a good idea! We’ll try that.

    We love the tree most for its beautiful blooms, but it would be fun to try to pick some for a pie and maybe share the rest with the birds.

    If it were a sweet cherry tree, watch out. Love those, and we usually go picking by the pail at Love Apple in Ghent.

  3. turling says:

    We just planted our first fruit tree on Sunday (Valencia Orange). I’ll have to bookmark this, as it will be years before the little guy will require any pruning.

  4. diana says:

    Thank you Margaret for the timely information! I’m going to prune my little apple trees today. I pruned my red currants a few days ago and had to cut off a lot more then intended due to cane borers.

  5. Kelley says:

    Yes, but how hold is too old? Can any tree be brought back? I purchased a house 3 years ago July that had an apple tree in the front yard. The first year I watched it; no blossoms. Second spring I cleaned it up; nothing. This is the third spring and now I’m wondering how long to wait.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Kelley. My trees are at the century mark, I expect; my little farmhouse is 1880s, too. So the answer is usually yes…they can be saved. Is the tree i a sunny spot, by the way? Sometimes between being overgrown and shaded out by big nearby trees of other kinds, they really sulk.

      One detail: These old trees are alternate-year bearers, meaning they produced good crops (and heavy bloom before it) every other year, not annually. Between that inclincation and the rehab job you have underway…hard to predict. It might also be advisable to feed the tree; a soil test is usually preferred first, to figure out what you need (otherwise a balanced fertilizer applied at the rate recommended on the package.

  6. Kelley says:

    Margaret, thank you for the good news that I can probably save this nice little tree and most especially for the information that I shouldn’t expect anything annually. Having being gardening passionately for over 20 years now the one thing I know for sure is that patience pays off (not that I achieve it always…).

  7. Johanna says:

    What a beautiful structure in that apple tree! I live in Michigan’s fruit belt and really enjoy winter drives past established orchards where the trees have such well-defined skeletons. Can’t argue with the late summer produce, either!

  8. angela says:

    You inspired me to get my ladder out and prune my OLD apple tree. Having just read Claire Sawyers “The Authentic Garden” I’m now I thinking about how I can use those nice branches I chopped off somewhere else in the garden…..maybe as fence posts? Any ideas?

  9. leslie land says:

    Thanks so much for the big – useful! – shout out for apple tree rescue. Their fabulous ability to bide their time through decades of shade and/or neglect, then emerge to bloom again when given some (tough) love is an inspiration in difficult times.

    Also, it must be admitted, a spur :) to domestic differences of opinion, so I guess I’m responding to two of your spiffy posts at once. Details at http://leslieland.com/blog/fruit-tree-pruning-time-or-is-it

    5 degrees at 6 this AM. Phooey. Good thing the houseplants are waking up.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Kathy. I have not. I am not great w/power tools other than the mower/tractor; no weed whip, no chainsaw, hedge trimmers, etc. Too noisy and irritating for me. Sometimes my neighbor comes to help me with big things, but nobody in all these years has used a Sawz-all (except for house stuff).

  10. Dee says:

    Hi Margaret — I enjoyed your lovely words thru the Martha Stewart magazine and am glad you now have your own special success here . . . question for you and/or your readers: we recently trimmed a huge evergreen tree from the bottom up to provide more circulation/sunshine around the garden area. Do you have any hints as to what I could plant at the base of this tree — I can’t stand to see all that room wasted! Since the tree drops needles and cones I assume this base is pretty alkaline. It is in an area that borders our lot line so we have a “rock” border there as well. Anything you could suggest would be greatly appreciated! Good luck and continued success!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Dee. What you are describing is the hardest environment, I think, for growing. There are so many shade plants, but even among them, a relative minority will tolerate the dry shade that mature conifers create, taking all the nutrients and moisture from the area. I have had success with epimediums, hellebores (orientalis types), certain ferns such as the Christmas fern, and even some Rodgersias. I don’t have many conifers with underplanting here, however; I’m more savvy on underplanting deciduous trees so far in my garden career. Also I am not sure re: your location.

  11. Some folks skip the first years, and the first year or two are some of the most important for pruning.

    That’s one deviation from general ornamental tree planting. The latest research available to arborists, is that ornamental trees establish better if not pruned for the first year or two.

    But with apple, pear, etc., I find it essential to gently bend and brace limbs, and do some pruning to stay in control of the form. And likewise each other year in succession.

    MDV ~ Oregon

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, M.D. Vaden. Thanks for adding to the conversation about training fruit trees. I started with old trees, but you are correct, getting them off to a good start is critical. Hope to see you again soon.

  12. Hi Margaret, we have a situation where we just planted our first semi-dwarf apple trees in our yard last year, and we didn’t know anything about pruning. By the time we read the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s guide to fruit tree maintenance, I decided I’d wait until early spring this year to do the first-year pruning, which involves cutting everything back to train a new leader. It currently has a leader and the whole tree is about 6 feet tall, but is a pretty sparse tree and I’m not wedded to any of it.

    However, I just considered taking on this task and noticed that all 5 or so major branches on the tree already have tiny blooms now at their tips. Is it too late to take on the major pruning where I’d leave just the central leader, or can I still do it? I really want to make an investment for the long term, but only if I haven’t missed the deadline for this year, which presumably would result in no new growth after my big pruning.


    1. Margaret says:

      @Naseer: Nice to see you! I think rather than letting it get further out of shape it would be best to go for it now. There is plenty of energy happening right now, so I expect it will quickly regroup and figure out what you have in mind for it (which is not blooming on all those unwanted branches). :) Apples are tough. I’d follow the plan asap. See you soon!

  13. Heather says:

    Local newbie here. Love your site and photos, even the interiors featured on thekitchn. One of these days I’ll make it over to your garden tour.

    Forgive the really beginner question, but is it too late to prune lilac branches? I’m thinking the buds may have already come for next spring, but I’m not sure.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Heather. The buds start forming on lilacs in our area by July-ish, so yes, they are fully formed and awaiting spring now. Best time to prune: During/right after bloom. (If you do it during, you get lots of fresh flowers for the house!). Maybe start with this quick when-to-prune roundup, then follow the links to the lilac specifics. By the way, hope to see you at one of the various nearby events coming up late winter/early spring (see events calendar).

  14. Starlet Braden says:

    Margaret, I absolutely love your blog. Very informative and I enjoy all the great advice. I am a certified arborist and horticulturist, and I am very impressed with your information. Great job.
    Thank you

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