I tackled the pruning of my apple tree the other day, February being the best time of year to do this for pome fruit trees in the northern hemisphere. Though I am far from being an expert yet in orchard pruning, I have many years of experience in general pruning for the health of small trees and shrubs.
My apple tree, luckily, has not been let go. The previous owners of our home were conscientious enough to keep it in relative check. I did do a little pruning on it last summer, just to thin it out a bit, as it was rather crowded. But it was by no means a big, gnarly old tree that needed severe restoration.
It was, however, not properly pruned at the beginning of its life, so rather than pruning along strict guidelines, I have to do the best I can to work with what I’ve got.
One of the biggest signs that this apple tree was not properly pruned by its original owner is that is has a branched trunk. If it had been started out correctly, it would have a single trunk with a strong leader, and a neat scaffold of branches reaching out in four directions, like a cross, with each layer of scaffold a bit shorter, to give a conical form to the entire canopy.
Instead, I have a V-shaped tree, one half of which branches out in three directions to create the lowest layer of a scaffold. Above it, the other half of the trunk branches out in various directions to create higher scaffolds, making for a much more organic form.
The tree seems healthy enough and the apples were very tasty, so I think working with this rather crazy-shaped tree is worth it. I enhanced its already established structure by giving something more of a cross-like pattern to its scaffolding by tucking my ladder into it on four (more or less) crosswise sides and pruning back the branches that were in my way, ensuring that I will be able to more easily work with the tree in the future.
I also made sure that all the limbs would be within easy enough reach for me to check and treat the tree for disease and pests and to thin and harvest the fruit, by lowering or shortening any branches that were beyond my arm’s length. And I snipped off branches and spurs that were growing straight up or down, or towards the inside of the tree, or interfering with one another, or that looked like they would be too crowded once the fruit was growing.
I also made a few large cuts to remove branches that had been damaged by borers and didn’t look like they were healing well, and to keep the branches away from the fences on two sides of the tree, hoping that will help keep rats from scampering up and grabbing my fruit.
Now I have a nicely open, primarily horizontal apple tree, which looks like it could meet my grandmother’s standard for pruning. According to my mother, she used to say that you should be able to throw a chicken through an apple tree!