Deep winter is prime apple tree pruning time. Pruning apple trees is important early in the tree’s life so that it gets started off right. Later on, if you properly prune the tree each year the tree will be more productive, more disease resistant, and have a longer life. Keeping all these things in mind, let’s talk about apple tree pruning today.
The general advice that I give people when it comes to pruning apple trees is to prune as much as you feel comfortable, then go back and prune a bit more. Most of the time people are afraid of damaging the tree if they cut too far back. But if trees are pruned at the right time of year and the right branches are cut off, it will be better for the long term health of the tree.
If you have a tree that has not been pruned regularly, and you’re trying to get it back into shape you’ll want to start out by pruning out and dead or diseased branches. Second you’ll want to cut out any crossing branches. Crossing branches create open wounds that can get easily infected. After you’ve pruned out dead, diseased, and crossing branches you want to try and open up the canopy. An open canopy will allow air to flow through. That’s going to reduce the humidity, and therefore reduce the likelihood of disease occurring. The saying is that you want the canopy to be so open that a bird could flying through it without hitting any branches. A tree that has too many branches will not be as productive. An apple tree is only able effectively produce a certain amount of fruit. Adding fertilizer can boost the productivity. Therefore, pruning might affect the number of fruit you tree produces, but you’ll have better quality and they’ll be more likely to make it all the way to maturity.
Trees that have been properly pruned their whole lives will have more a Christmas tree shape than a teardrop shape. If you have a newly planted tree you’ll need to prune it as well. If you have planted an unbranched whip you’ll need to cut it back to 24 to 30 inches above the ground. This is going to encourage the new tree to branch out. If you don’t prune an unbranched whip, you’ll probably end up having a 20 foot tall tree that doesn’t have any branches on it.
Sometimes people will plant a seed from an apple core that they’ve eaten. This can be a fun experiment for kids to see an apple tree grow. An issue that you may run into with this is that there is no telling what kind of apple tree will come up. If you plant a seed from your favorite apple, that fruit could have been pollinated by a different variety, leaving you with an unknown cross. Another issue is that nowadays most trees have been grafted onto a rootstock. The grafted rootstock will provide more protection from root diseases and may also dwarf the tree, which cuts down on the difficulty of managing the tree.
If you have questions about pruning apple trees, contact your County Extension Office or email me at Jacob.Williams@uga.edu.