When we bought our house, the property had a handful of mature fruit trees. The trees had been neglected for some time. Pruning fruit trees is not something we did not do in New Mexico, so we researched for days on “how to prune a neglected apple tree”. The information was overwhelming. It seemed like there were a dozen theories on how to do and it varied widely between the literature and neighbors.
So, I took a class on pruning through the Oregon State University Extension Service (OSU) with Ross Penhallegon.
If you can find an orchard/fruit tree pruning class with Ross Panhallegon – GO! If it costs a million dollars, get a loan. He is brilliant, funny and will make you look forward to pruning season. Check through the OSU Extension Service for one of his classes near you.
The following is my interpretation of how to prune a neglected apple tree. By the end of this post, you may wonder if I’m blind, deaf and illiterate because my process didn’t follow any manual exactly.
For the most part, I followed the instruction of Ross as I recalled it, in my head. However, there is where the beauty of pruning fruit trees is found. Many of the methods are OK. The key is to get a vision on what you want your fruit tree to look like and stick with it.
My class instructor also said that it’s practically impossible to kill to an apple tree and that the biggest problem is that folks don’t prune heavily enough. I’m going to test out that theory with this neglected apple tree.
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OSU Publication Resources
OSU Extension Service – Lane County: Pruning Basics Handout
OSU Extension Service: Pruning to Restore An Old Apple Tree
- Felco hand pruners – These are my dream hand pruners. I don’t actually own a pair but they are currently in my Amazon cart.
- Long-handled loppers, 18-inch. These are the ones I bought after the pruning extravaganza. For this pruning, I used a pair that I picked up at a yard sale for $10 last summer.
- Pruning hand-saw, 12-16 inches. These are next on my list to buy. I used a pole saw and it was ridiculously inconvenient on low hanging branches.
- Whetting stone/sharpener and some oil (like WD-40). Every gardener need to keep their tools sharp. It’s hard enough work as it is!
- Safe ladder. My instructor recommended a tripod ladder, saying it was difficult to find four places on the ground to agree with each other. I used a 4-legged painting ladder and it was not safe. I didn’t fall, but it wasn’t for a lack of attempts. His was a 6 foot, like this one. I’m asking Santa for this ladder for Christmas.
- Pole pruner, 10-foot. Optional, but I borrowed one from a friend and liked it a lot on high branches but it was awful on low branches. Though, if Santa gives me a ladder, I doubt I’ll need a pole pruner.
We also used a chain saw because the trees needed excessive pruning of large limbs. I doubt I’ll use it again.
In the printouts, you’ll see that there are three main shapes to strive for with an apple tree. I like the Vase or Multiple Leader shape. A w-i-d-e, shallow vase. Why? Because I’m small. I want trees that I can manage. If a tree has a main leader going up the center, that means it will be tall and that’s a problem because I am not. And I don’t like heights, so I don’t want to climb 10 feet up a ladder to prune or pick fruit.
A healthy tree is a tree you can manage, and for me, that is a tree with scaffoldings at 5-6 feet.
The tree had six scaffolds and one central leader. I wanted to keep five scaffolds for easier management, so two had to go. The central leader was a problem because it wouldn’t work with my goal of a vase shaped tree, so it was removed. The low scaffolding off to the left was also removed because there was a lot going on in that area of the tree and we have deer that can easily access anything that low. See picture below – arrows point to the central leader and scaffolding removed. You can easily see all those naked apple tree branches among the other naked tree branches, right? Ha! Getting these pictures was more complicated than the pruning!
This what we were left with – not bad. With a little work, I can envision a pretty tree from this. Can you?
Because the tree hadn’t been pruned in who-knows-how-long there were some major concerns. Some of the branches were crowded, others were weak and spindly and then other branches were very long. Working my way around the tree, one section at a time, I used the following four rules to prune:
- Remove dead and diseased branches.
- If many branches are coming from an old cut – leave only two.
- Fruit grows on Year 2 wood – focus pruning to make those branches healthy.
- Branches above 7 feet and pointing up – get cut down.
Here is what that looks like in action.
- Crowded: if there were a bunch of branches coming from an old cut, I’d leave only two that were pointing in different directions. You can see where the branches were coming from an old cut in the picture below – they look like a whirl coming from one spot.
- Fruit grows on Year 2 wood.
- From the scaffolding, I’d count out two lengths. A length was the section from the main branch to an area that had scar lines, indicating the end of a year of growth. The first section is referred to as Year 1 wood.
- Year 1 wood could only be 18″ or shorter. If it was longer, I’d cut it back to 18 inches. The branches were pretty small and I didn’t think they would do well holding fruit if they were longer. And it was a length Ross said was appropriate.
- Beyond the scar lines, I’d look for a side branch and count that as Year 2 wood. That wood will produce apples. Year 2 wood could only be 18″ as well.
Photos by Rebecca Hooper
- Any branches that start at 7’ high and are heading up – get cut down. Only branches heading horizontal were kept because I don’t want to climb up too high on a ladder to prune and pick fruit. The picture below, on the left, looks like I cut all branches off the scaffoldings. I didn’t. It’s an illusion from my masterful photography. It’s like taking a picture of a needle in a haystack!
Photos by Rebecca Hooper
Lastly, I make a plan for two years in the future. Of the 5 scaffolding, some are not in the best condition. They are old and I’d like to replace them. Ross taught us this trick and added that he hasn’t seen it in any literature.
I picked one scaffolding to replace in two years. Then, I found a branch scar that looks like a branch would grow into space that would be beneficial to the shape of the tree. This summer, a branch will grow out from that cut. Next summer, I’ll prune it to 18 inches. The following summer, I’ll cut the scaffolding off just beyond where the new branch grew.
Each year, I’ll pick a different scaffolding to replace. This is part of my management plan for maintaining healthy trees.
Photos by Rebecca Hooper
And there you have it – my version of how to prune an apple tree.
Live or Die Pruning
Well, that was one way. Here is another way I pruned this year too. It’s what my instructor called “Live or Die” pruning.
These three trees have been neglected for a very long time. That’s a plumb on the far left and two apple trees on the right. Look at how tall they are; the lowest branches begin at 7-8 feet! As mentioned earlier, I want trees that I can manage. As a shorty, manageable means lowest branches start at 5-6 feet. So – I lopped them off at about 5.5 feet.
Photos by Rebecca Hooper
During dormancy (winter) the trees have all their energy stored up in their roots. They’ll use that energy in the spring to send out new shoots and grow out their leaves and flowers. In a few months, these trees will have a bunch of new, year one branches.
Unless, of course, they die. Then I’ll plant new trees.
I’d love to see your pruned trees. Post them on An Oregon Coast Garden Facebook page!
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