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Pruning apple trees is essential to keep them in good health, and to produce good yields. Many people are overcome and don’t know where to start when it comes to pruning their own apple trees. Let this article be your guide, and hopefully it will help alleviate your fears.
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These two tools are recommended by mastor arborist Paul Gautschi, who I talk about below. This Samurai Japanese pruning saw cuts through the branches like butter. And these Felco F-8 pruners, are excellent. Paul has used his pruners for so long, the red plastic layer on the handles has worn off to the blue beneath. I really like how they came with an extra blade as well. Do NOT use loppers. They are not the best tool for pruning.
Thankfully, I watched the Back to Eden gardening film online a few years ago. The film is a documentary, featuring Paul Gautschi, a master arborist. Not only does he share his famous no-till method of gardening with wood chips, but he also opens up his garden once a week in the summers for tours. He also opens up it up for pruning lessons in the winter and teaches people how to prune apple trees.
I have on my bucket list to get over there and see his work first hand, as he is also in the Pacific NW. Thankfully, many folks have video taped his tours and lessons, and they are available on YouTube to watch.
Thank you to L2Survive for allowing me to share this video.
Please check out his You Tube Channel here at L2Survive
Several years ago, I came across a video of Paul Gautschi giving a lesson on how to prune apple trees on YouTube, and it all began to click for me. I’ve watched him every year before I begin pruning, to remind me of what the trees are supposed to look like afterwards.Over the last 3 years, I feel like my trees are finally taking the shape that they are supposed too. Thank you to L2Survive, for providing so many video’s of Paul in his Back to Eden garden. It is so wonderful to have his knowledge documented in a way we can all benefit.
You can find a plethora of wonderful video’s of Paul Gautschi sharing his gardening knowledge, from how he uses chickens in his garden, to how he grafts pear trees and more. Please do check it out! L2Survive’s You Tube Channel for more Paul Gautschi videos.
Ideally, you want to prune apple trees in late winter, before new growth begins developing on the tree. This may depend on where you live and how long your winters are. It may also depend on how many trees you have to do! Here in the PNW, you can start as early as January and usually can go thru February. Unless we have a long warm spell.
Ideally, you want to be done before the tree starts opening buds. So if you have really long cold winters, this may be much later for you. Watch your trees, and keep notes. Take note of when you start seeing the buds swell up, and when they open. Then next year, you will have a better idea of when you will need to be done pruning based on the notes you took this year.
You can also do some minor pruning in the summer, mostly just to take those vertical straight up growing water shoots out. If you watch some of the video’s of Paul on YouTube, he does cover this in one of them. I will have to try and find it. Basically, he watches his trees closely. When they start growing new upward branches, also called shoots, he just rubs them off with his finger.
have tried this, and it does work! If you let them go too long, they will be to hard to pinch off. By pruning off these new upward shoots, it tells the tree to send its roots deeper, which is always a good thing. Especially in a drought. So it is a good ideas to follow this practice.
It is never wise to remove more than a third of the tree at one time. So fixing trees that have become over grown or that have been neglected, takes time. Usually over the course of several years. This is currently what I am doing with my own trees, as they were pruned incorrectly from the start.
I have been “fixing” them for the last three years, and feel like the pruning they will receive next year, will finally have them moving in the right direction. So don’t get too gung ho and take off too much at once. Remember the one third rule and just do what you can each year.
Paul talks a bit about this in the video above. His rule of thumb is that his trees cannot be taller than he can reach to harvest the fruit. His reason being he doesn’t want to use a ladder. This is easy to do. Just remember it may take time if you are working with an overgrown tree. It is easier to do if you are working with a young tree from the start. And remember the one third rule, do not remove more than a third of the tree in one pruning. And work from the center out.
Your first year, you may just need to remove some height while also trying to open it up to air and light as I talk about below. The next year, may be more of the same. As you get the tree down to a scale you are happy with, then you can work on the more traditional shaping using Paul’s video above as inspiration.
Besides the tools I use, the other basic tip on how to prune fruit trees, is to open them up to air and light and work from the inside out. Start in the middle, opening it up. Then work your way out.
If one branch is directly above another branch, one has to go because the lower branch is blocked from light by the branch above it. Look at them both and decide which is the better one to keep. Is the upper branch too high for you to reach? Than take it out. Is the lower one too low to the ground? Than leave the higher branch and take the lower one out.
Same goes for forks in a branch. If a branch has a 3 way fork, take out the center fork, to open up the outer sprigs for more light and air circulation. Use the saw for larger branches, and the pruners, for smaller limbs.
Using the pruners, when you are trimming a branch off, use angled cuts just about a 1/4″ above a bud at about a 45 degree angle. Trim back branches to a bud that is growing in the direction you want.
Remember you want the tree to grow open and outward, so don’t choose a bud that is going to grow back into the center of the tree. When taking out a whole branch, Paul recommends trimming right at the collar. Others will tell you to cut above the collar. But in Paul’s video above, you can see how well his trees have healed over doing it his way. So that is the way I choose to do it.
Also take out any vertically growing branches which are called water shoots. Than when new growth is really coming on later in the spring or early summer, watch for new water shoots that may be starting to grow. If you catch them early enough, you can just rub that new growth off with your thumb, or use the pruners to nip them off when small.
For years, I was never sure quite how to prune apple trees. We planted 10 apples trees when we were building this house 17 years ago and every winter, I just let my husband go at them with the loppers. Cutting off all the shoots that went straight up. I new there was more to it, but didn’t really know what. I have since learned, using loppers at all for pruning, according to Paul Gautschi, is a no no.
Ideally, institute Paul’s Back to Eden gardening method of placing layers of manure/compost and a thick layer of wood chips beneath the trees. The helps keep weeds and grass away, and the mulch keeps them from needing to be watered as often. You may need to add a lighter layer of wood chips every other year or so.
Then sprinkle with a light layer of composted chicken manure each spring. If you have pests, you will need to spray with a dormant oil in late winter or early spring, before the new growth on the tree appears. The oil will help smother the pests or their offspring who may be hatching soon.
A fixed copper fungicide spray can help apple scab, cedar-apple rust and powdery mildew. The best time to spray either of these is after pruning. First spray the copper spray and let dry. Then spray the oil. Thinning of the apples when they are about 1″ in size, can help prevent brown rot by creating better air flow around the fruit. Leave the largest healthiest looking two pieces of fruit in each cluster.
After posting photo’s of my apple trees in this blog post, and re-watching the video I posted, I realize my branches don’t hang down to the ground like Paul’s. Can you figure out why?
Two reasons. One, I am still repairing them from years of bad pruning, but it is also because I have not yet implemented the Back to Eden gardening method beneath my apple trees. But I am excited to say, that will all be changing this spring. I currently have 2 truck loads of wood chips just waiting!
I plan to lay down paper or cardboard on the grass beneath each tree. Than I have many full coops full of deep litter bedding that needs to be cleaned out, and will go over the paper/cardboard. Than I will layer the woodchips on top. Hopefully my harvest will be more like Paul’s this fall. Stay tuned for an update!