Most gardeners will ask that question again and again, especially during the dormant season. Let’s face it, it has to be done, if you want your trees healthy. Whether you have one or two trees or 2,000, like me, it should be done yearly.
I’m going to talk to you about fruit trees, mainly apples. These are load bearing trees as opposed to the ornamental type that you may have in your yard. Ornamental’ s do not carry much weight in the way of fruit. Those trees are usually pruned to keep their shape or reduce their size, so as not to outgrow their space. Trees that carry a lot of weight due to the crop they have, need to be pruned to carry that weight. Whether it is fruit or ornamental trees, you will need tools and they are essentially the same for both. You will need tools to cut big branches, small branches and everything in between. My main tools are a chainsaw, handsaw, loppers, hand pruners and a ladder of proper height.
If the trees are very young, 3 to 4 years, leave the pruning till after the weather breaks in the spring. If they are older, prune when-ever you have tools in your hands during the dormant season so you can see the tree structure.
Start pruning with one of the saws and get the big stuff out of the way first. Look at your tree and find any broken or sick and diseased branches. When in doubt cut them out, trees grow very quickly. You can always train a new shoot to take its place if it leaves a hole. It will take several years but it will be better in the long run. If you start with the hand pruner (unless you have very small trees), you will never get the big stuff out. I always look for the dominate branches to take out and leave weaker branches in the top and try to keep forever the lowest tier.
Next, look for shoots or young branches that grow straight up or straight down. Remember, we are pruning fruit trees and we have to prune so we can harvest the sunlight. We do not want to create any shadows from upright branches. We need an airy tree to allow for the sun and for air movement which will facilitate spray applications.
There are many tree training methods, which I will not go into now. The ideal tree for me is one that is Christmas tree shape. Narrow at the top and wide at the bottom, so we can harvest the light. That will give us a central leader tree with one main trunk. The top half of a tree needs no encouragement to grow. In fact we try to suppress the growth in the top of the tree so it won’t over whelm the bottom. It is always a fight to keep the bottom productive and the top narrow. Thus in the top we train branches to grow downhill and we prune out the dominate branches and leave the weaker ones. Most fruit will grow on branches the size of a pencil so cut the strong branches out in the top of the tree.
Now most of you are saying to yourselves that my trees are not Christmas tree shape or one central leader. Well, neither is mine. As I said, it is a constant fight to keep the top from overgrowing the bottom, even in small trees. We don’t want to butcher a tree to get that shape so we deal with what we have and take advantage of the fruitwood that is there. Just start as I have mentioned and you will be surprised at what will be laying on the ground when finished. Until now we have been using the saws. Work the smaller branches with the lopper and the hand pruner as you work up the tree.
Now, for the pruning cuts themselves. Don’t cut in the middle of some side branches and leave a stub of some sort. A branch will need a growing point (leaves, branch or bud) on the end to draw the sap like a little suction pump or the stub will die off. Prune so these growing points are generally pointing the same way the branch was growing. You don’t want to cut to a side shoot or branch that grows at right angles to the main branch. You will end up with a branch that grows half way around the tree.
As you work from bottom to top, prune back the branches so they are not so long. Long branches at the bottom will end up lying on the ground and long ones in the upper part of the tree will lie on branches below them. Make cuts that are pretty close to side branches, shoots or buds, no stubs. Ideally, you want the middle branches to be about half the size of the bottom tree branches and the top branches about half the size of the middle branches. This is not always possible, but have that as your goal.
A tree with stable growth will have a root area the same as the above ground part of the tree. When pruned back, the above ground part of the tree will be smaller, but you will still have the same size root system. This will give the tree extra energy from the roots pumping the same amount of sap into a smaller tree. You will have a lot of new shoot growth because of this and it will need to be taken care of, so it won’t get bushy and create a lot of shade. Of course, I grow apples commercially so I am a little ruthless when I prune. Don’t get in love with a branch or a limb or a tree. If it should be pruned, prune it. If you make a mistake, big deal, learn from it and you can always train a new shoot to take its place. I’ll bet in a year or two you won’t be able to find the spot where the mistake was made or even care. Apple tree branches can be trained in all kinds of ways when the branches are young. They can be spread, tied, weighted and pruned to fill almost any spot you need.
I remember what an old timer said to me once about pruning in dormant season, “If you can’t throw a cat through the tree without it catching a branch you haven’t pruned enough”. That is pretty drastic and I don’t follow it that way anymore. When you prune, you naturally are cutting off potential fruit and you will get all kinds of new shoot growth that need to be taken care of. I have learned if the tree needs drastic pruning, it is better to do it over two or three years. Good Pruning!