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Pruning Apple Trees

Filed Under: Patios, Porches & Decks, Outdoors

With the coldest part of the winter behind us, it'll soon be peak season for pruning apple trees.

pruning apple treesPruning apple trees can begin as early as January, as seen in this photo, but is recommended for early spring. Photo: AP/Jessica Hill

If you have an apple tree in your backyard, now is the time to start thinking about pulling out the pruners. Don't worry about a surprise March or April snowstorm. A cold snap is the issue for apple trees -- you can get damage with severe cold temperatures because the buds on the apple tree are less hearty. Snow is actually a good insulator, so it's not an issue. We asked Mike Biltonen, VP of farm operations for Red Jacket Orchards, an orchard and juice company located in New York state, to share tips on the best way to prune apple trees - and why you should take the time to prune.

Pruning apple trees is an essential part of renewing the wood that bears fruit. When branches get older they become less productive, and the fruit quality tends to decrease.

Pruning also helps sunlight penetrate the tree. The more light and air get into the tree, the higher quality of apples you'll harvest; fruit simply grows better in good light.

By opening up the tree for light penetration, you're also reducing the wood's microhabitats -- insects that can harbor disease -- so tree disease is less likely to occur. You also want to prune at this time to remove any dead and diseased wood.

pruning apple treesSummer apple tree pruning should start in July, when your tree has decent growth. Photo: drugspr, Flickr

There are actually two times a year to prune:

At the start of spring, after the cold snaps, you want to do your dormant pruning.

By early July -- as soon as you get some decent growth -- you can start summer pruning, in which you take out succulent growth from the trees so you can get more air and light penetration to the fruit. Summer pruning is recommended for larger apple trees, in order to get a good crop.

you need four basic tools depending on the size of the apple tree.

For big trees, Red Jacket Orchards uses chain saws.

For smaller trees and detailed pruning, they use pruning loppers, hand shears, and a hand saw.

Always start with the big cuts first and then move to more detailed pruning. "Ultimately, you want to get a Christmas tree shape out of it," says Biltonen. You want the bottom branches to be longer than the top branches.

And you don't want any branches growing straight up or down, which can create structural issues. Branches growing straight up will function like a wall, and you won't be able to get good light to the fruit. If your branches are hanging down too much, your wood gets weaker, which affects your fruit quality.

Ideally, you want the branches at a 45 degree angle off of the trunk, which will be strong (like the wings of an airplane). The biggest mistake people make with pruning apple trees is pruning too much or not enough. "There's a balance you want to achieve," says Biltonen. "Know your tree and your objectives of pruning."

Extra tip: Apple wood burns wonderfully, so you can use it for firewood!

Want to know how to add an apple orchard to your urban landscape? Check out Garden Girl's tutorial for planting an urban orchard!

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