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If You’re Putting This Off, Do it Now: Pruning Apple Trees

This winter and spring have been nuts everywhere. Here in Upstate New York, we’ve had the driest and warmest winter that I can remember. Considering we had horrific hurricanes and flooding last August and September, It really makes your head swim (so to speak).

Which makes doing anything in the garden according to some sort of calendar a wee bit weird. Ordinarily, the DH would have gone out to prune the apple tree in January (which, even under the best of circumstances, is an onerous task – it’s cold and your hands freeze up). This year, he kept putting it off until I saw a note from one of our local U-pick apple orchards that they were out pruning in March. Now, between the ‘not what it says in the book’ thing and “It’s awfully warm out there…” thing, he was dubious to say the least, but since a) we had to get the apple tree cleaned up (that is, open up the middle by clearing out all the sprouts) and b) There were a lot of those ‘growing straight up in the air and if you leave them, they will get bowed down with apples, ice, snow and break off’ sorts of things, we decided we’d take an hour and get at it. Since the buds on the tree had not swelled or opened, we figured we’d be in good shape to do this.

Now, it IS a lot more pleasant to prune on a nice, sunny, warmish, March day. But there are a couple of things that you’ll want to remember if you have a bit of fear of pruning:

1) Think of an apple tree as a wine glass. The branches should be the glass part and it should be empty in the middle so that the sun can get into the center parts of the tree. The tree is going to grow lots of stuff in any case; that is the nature of the beast when it comes to apple trees. But if you can get it opened up early enough in the spring, then you can help prevent a lot of problems and disease later. It is also probably the only case where you cannot do too much pruning. Take note of the photo at the top – see all the mas of sprouts on that tree? That’s what the DH is there to clean up.

2) Not that we consider ourselves great pruners, but we do know that the trick here is to get right to the bottom of what you want to remove, right where it meets the next larger stem, and cut it right at that point. Here is a photo of one that the DH has to remove – AGAIN. See that ring of growth right under the pruners? Yep – he didn’t slice that close enough last year so back it came.

3) Clean off the pruners between trees and definitely between jobs – scrub the blades off with a mix of water with some bleach in it to prevent moving disease around.

When you are done, you should have something that looks like this – open in the center, with no branches crossing over or laying on top of one another. In our case, we also needed to do a bit of trimming in the ‘under carriage’ of the tree because frankly, it gets mighty annoying to try to mow the lawn when you have to crouch down pushing the mower under there.

The thing to remember is this: Don’t be afraid to prune. Yes, you can end up with something ugly but you won’t kill the tree. Get yourself a book, take a class at the local Cooperative Extension, find someone at a local garden center to show you. Believe me, the trees will thank you and you will end up with fruit and better fruit.

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