Apple pruning confuses a lot of people and it doesn't matter how many times you look at that diagram in the book, your tree just looks nothing like it!Here is my simple version of how to prune your apple tree.First you need to be aware of the reasons for pruning.
To maintain the health of the plant/tree
To control the shape or size
To encourage flowers and fruit and yields. Left un-pruned, growth becomes congested with older branches bearing fewer flowers and poor quality fruit.
When to prune and pruning theory
Winter pruning normally takes place when the tree is dormant (after leaf fall). Best not to prune when temperatures are below freezing.Any pruning done at this time will encourage growth for next year and invigorates the tree.Summer pruning can also be useful to prune out water shoots (vertical branches) and in the case of espaliers can allow more sunlight to ripen the fruit.As a basic rule any pruning that you do in the winter encourages growth. The harder the tree is pruned the more growth it puts on. But this can mean that you have a good vigorous tree and not so much fruit. There has to be a balance of old and young wood and a balance between growth and fruitfulness. Any pruning done in the summer tends to slow growth and is mainly done on restricted forms.Plants want to grow and stretch to reach sunlight and use up a lot of their energy in doing so. By taking off/pruning long unnecessary branches/shoots it means that the energy that was being used to make that branch grow is re directed towards the buds and encourages growth in these areas. The tips of the branches hold all the auxins (plant growth hormones) so once you remove the tips they put their energy into the next growth area – the buds.First things first- have a good stare. Take the time to have a good look at the tree before you start. Does it look healthy, is the shape good, are there any really badly positioned branches that must go?Before pruning you need to establish a few things about your tree. Firstly is it a tip bearer or a spur bearer. Tip bearing literally means it produces fruit on the tips of the branches. Spur pruning means it produces fruit along the branches on the fruit spurs. If you are not sure you can look up the cultivar to find out. If you don’t know the cultivar, watch the tree for a season and see what it does, or take a gamble- most trees are spur bearers.If it is an established tree, has it already been pruned to a shape that you want to keep, i.e. spindle, pyramid, cordon, espalier etc. this will effect how you choose to prune the tree.The steps1- Firstly remove any dead, diseased and damaged branches. (If you have cut diseased wood wipe your secateurs with methylated spirits to stop the spread of disease).2- Remove any crossing branches to avoid damage from rubbing and creating an easy entrance wound for disease.3- Remove any branches that are pointing back into the tree as these will just cause congestion and any fruit that may form probably wont get enough sunlight to be much good.4- Remove congested branches to allow light and air into the tree. When pruning an established apple tree the aim is to achieve an open ‘goblet’ shape with a good framework of about five main branches (unless you have cider apple trees which are pyramid shaped and keep the central leader). The more free flow of air the less the build up of fungal disease.5- Remove any weak or worn out stems. They will just sap more of the trees energy unnecessarily.6- Remove any vertical water shoots. These are the strong vigorous shoots that head straight up normally off the main branches. Again they are a waste of the trees energy and are unlikely to ever produce fruit.7- Thin congested fruit spurs. On an older tree it is sometimes necessary to thin out some of the spur systems as they become overcrowded. (When the spurs are over crowded the fruit will be smaller and there is more chance of disease.) Spur pruning can also be done in the winter.8- Pull out any suckers around the base. These are coming from the rootstock and just take energy away from the tree.
How to prune
Always cut above a bud, as that is where the energy is stored.Always cut at an angle so that the slope is away from the bud. This way any rainwater will roll away from the bud rather than into it, which could result in the bud rotting.Always think about the direction that the bud is pointing in. The new shoot, which arises from the prune, will follow the direction of the bud.Always use sharp, clean secateurs and knives. Clean off blades in between cuts to prevent the spread of disease.Remember that horizontal branches will bear more fruit than vertical ones.Old, neglected trees are best, treated by pruning over 3 or 4 years. Otherwise there will be excessive growth if you prune too hard. The more you cut, the more it will grow!
Spur bearing:Take a good look at the framework of your tree. You need 5-8 main stem branches. Follow the branches to the tips. You need to choose what will be known as your ‘leader branch’. Prune these main branches to between ¼ to 1/3 to the best outward facing bud. That means that the next branch will follow that direction next year. The side shoots then get pruned back to 3 or 4 buds to produce fruiting spurs.Tip bearing:Prune each main branch and side shoots to the first strong bud. Any laterals less than 30 cm long should be left unpruned (other wise you will prune off all the fruiting buds).Apple tree pests and diseases and orchard careApples are particularly susceptible to mildew, canker and scab. If you are buying a new tree try to buy varieties that have been bred with disease resistance.Sometimes fruits can be ruined with holes from the codling moth larva. In late spring hang up pheromone traps for codling moth. Male moths follow the female pheromone into the trap and land on the sticky pad.Prune out and burn any mildewed shoots.You can use grease bands around trunks (and the stake) so that winter moth stick to them. The female winter moth has no wings and so climbs up the trunk in autumn or spring.Remove any fruit still on the tree after harvest- especially any brown rotten fruit- and hang up fat balls to attract birds. They will also eat up any insects.Retain good hygiene. Rake up fallen leaves around the tree. This helps clear scab pores and any over wintering pests.If trees are staked, check tree ties every year to make sure that they aren’t cutting into the tree.Keep grass down around the base of young trees.Apply blood, fish and bone or a high potash in late January to feed the trees.And there you go- simple.Weather permitting the team will be in the orchard next week so if you want to see how it's done come down and have a look.