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introduction to pruning apple trees
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The beneficial time to prune fruit trees is between late fall until the frozen earth thaws. In winter, when the weather permits, (that is when bark is dry enough not to spread bark-rot nor buds so frozen that they will break at the touch) i hire out to open fruit trees up and carry out the yearly maintenance pruning for my clients. Since there is no better way of learning any craft than to participate in it with someone who has developed the skill, i also demonstrate and coach those customers disposed in ascertaining how to do it themselves. It is important for the dedicated homesteader to understand that domesticating fruit trees is a long term commitment since it is better for a fruit tree to be neglected and grow its own way as long as it can than to receive unseasonable or irregular pruning attention. The type of pruning i intend to try to explain is not something that can be done every few years, rather pruning is an indispensable commitment in the relationship between homesteader and fruit-bearing trees once they have been opened.

A fruit tree’s ramifications overreact randomly to damage, that is the tree will overcompensate indiscriminately for any loss, whether due to elemental breakage, unfavorable conditions, disease or selective pruning. Once there are more roots than branches, the tree will send out sporadic new growth in proportion to it’s loss. Excessive offshoots upon branches are called ‘water sprouts’, whereas undue growths from the trunk or roots are called ‘suckers’. By the time leaves have settled in, the jungle of water sprouts captures moister within the tree and the tangles of suckers against the trunk . There are amazing numbers of mold spores in the air, and injurious molds depend on just such wet opportunities to take hold of a susceptible tree. Once they have established themselves, molds like the Fire Blight will kill the more susceptible cultivars and volunteers. In other words, not keeping up the winter-pruning in trees that have produced suckers and water sprouts will in un-salutary conditions, that is during a warm wet and windless extended period in summer, nurture these airborne molds within the tree. It could be said that molds are nature’s most aggressive pruners. Although apple trees are resilient creatures who will fight for life with admirable determination, it is the responsibility of the gardener or orchardist to preempt, or remedy, the ravages of pathogens upon the health of these graceful fruit bearers.

The ideal would be to guide a fruit sapling as soon as it is taller than you, because only a few twigs are snipped off yearly during the life of such a relationship, whereas when a veteran of your property suffers the ravages of disease so much more wood needs to be sawed from it, and in consecutive years so many sprouts need to be kept up with. Pruning fruit trees is not only opening them to the therapeutic contact of sun and air, but snipping away the new growth in such a way that what the pruner leaves of the new growth ends up contributing to the bearing of the tree. What i mean, is that most of the yearly sprouts upon each branch are sectioned down to their initial node, so that after three years of assiduous snipping-back (to one or two nodes), each water spout has progressively been turned into a ‘bearing claw’. Then there will be bloom all along the mature wood of the creature, and when pollination succeeds, fruit a plenty born all along every strong and healthy bows.

As a little boy in France where i grew up, my family reclaimed an orchard tangled in liana and ingrown with invasive saplings. My parents hired a veteran migrant agricultural worker, Hanibal, to restore the apple, pear, plumbs, apricot, peach and cherry trees; and my dad made me spend many Saturdays helping him. I can’t say i was glad to do it, but this early orchard pruning experience gave me a reference for observing, throughout the years, how different trees respond to the elements and to pruning, how they develop and the consequences of those that have been opened up compared to how others expand on their own...

Anything the pruner takes from and/or leaves on a fruit tree is a long term investment which determines their relationship for the life span of the tree. No cut can be taken back, no twig or branch that is left on the tree will ever offer the pruner as consequential an opportunity again, since that extension of the tree evolves in relation to the rest of the growing organism.

It is generally fine to enable crab apples trees to do their thing unhindered, since pruning demands yearly maintenance investment in labor. But when for instance trees threaten a house, block a view or will be harshly cut back by the road-crew... yearly pruning will produce a healthy shapely tree, that will resist the onslaught of extreme weather and produce desirable spectacular bloom. Flowering results along the length of each selected and restrained branch.
Major pruning is done after the winter solstice before the ground thaws, when occasional sunny days allow the cuts opportunity to heal while freezing disinfects pathogens and molds. If an apple tree in a pasture produces desirable fruit, it benefits from being opened to the sun and air to avoid contamination or spread of molds. A tree should be ‘tamed’ to branch out above the potential nibbling of grazing animals and wild deer, that is, encouraged to open up above a standing human, nevertheless the fruit should not be emboldened to grow beyond harvesting reach. To encourage a ‘weeping’ of the branches helps the tree resist excessive weight of fruit, snow and ice storms. Nevertheless a solitary tree needs be respected and, i believe, allowed it’s asymmetry, which will be reduced with astute annual pruning selection.
Venerable apple trees gone wild, can be assisted to live on healthy without necessarily (but also possibly) being domesticated. Since culling living wood will inevitably produce an insalubrious overreaction of random growth, it is necessary only to take off deadwood when necessary. The pruner needs at times to be devilishly scrupulous to find artful strategies not let any stomped decaying pulpwood upon the tree.

Venerable apple trees can be domesticated when health longetivity and fruit (+ other reasons such as danger to adjacent buildings) justify it. The apple tree cannot necessarily immediately be brought low enough for fruit picking. Yet by extracting unhealthy growth, new lower growth will be favored in subsequent yearly pruning. Note that the most important thing one can do to ‘free’ an apple tree is to open it to enough sunlight and especially taking down aggressive ingrowing arboreal competitors.
This dwarf apple tree was pruned a few years earlier, but not maintained. Notice the water sprouts which, when the first picture, was taken had branched out depriving the crown of the tree from sunlight eventually permitting an inner leafy jungle to retain moister during warm windless periods, which would be the perfect condition for molds to spread and corrupt the desired growth. The second picture shows that a major pruning was needed again, rather than simple annual maintenance removal of water-sprouts. This set the tree back to the state of the original pruning, rather than enable the tree to progress in a mutually advantageous fashion.
This old domesticated apple tree is part of an organically maintained elderly orchard that yields a regular bumper crop of desirable fruit. (Orchardists introduce beehives during bloom to assure cross-fertilization in years when only short opportunities, during detrimental weather, permit local pollinators to be assured to make their way to distant fruit producers). Yearly maintenance is necessary, so that every claw along each branch may blossom and bear apples. Notice, on the upper right of the picture, the last few suckers the pruner is tending to remove. The pruner only leaves one or two nodes at the base of each new growth, so that each claw is ever more mature (therefore productive) but does crowd the tree with detrimental leafy excess.

Natural bearing node

A bearing node only appears off a wooded branch after three years growth. The pruner keeps one or two nodes on each sprouting twig so as to contain fertility in each claw along a branch of the tree. The ‘foreskins’ at the base of a bud, indicate the potential for fertility. (I say “potential” because many things can go wrong, the weather may kill a bud or hinder it from opening at a time when the pollen from the anther of another apple tree’s flower can land on the stigma of the flower that should form from the bud).

Pruned to produce bearing claws

Every year new nodes are encouraged into bearing claws.

Frozen rain may follow such a snowstorm, and weigh even more heavily on the trees. This photo shows how efficiently the classical ‘weeping style pruning’ is, allowing the weight to bend with the sway of the tree, rather than the weight acting against the curvature of the tree which would more readily snap the branches. The trees on the picture were taken care of earlier that winter. To work a fruit tree when it is wet spreads the very pathogens one is pruning to get rid of.
A wild apple tree can thrive for decades before disease threatens its integrity and survival. Pruning is in the interest of a long term relationship that serves the tree as well as its owner. The benefits in pruning only become evident once disease and incompatibility have set in, or when the quality of the fruit is diminished by the dense inner-growth of the tree... The before apple tree photo is still relatively healthy, and is beautiful as is, so why subject the tree to such major surgery? The optimal backyard pruning of an apple tree would be best begun as soon as the sampling is taller than it’s owner. The reason is that only a few twigs would need to be removed every year to encourage the sapling’s original growth to unfold in a way that both indulge an ideal interrelationship with its custodians while at the same time maximizing it’s own health and productivity. Pruning is not making a tree into something other, rather encouraging that part of the creature’s natural outburst to coincide with a mutual advantage the homesteader sought when (s)he planted it. So the answer to the question is: the longer one waits to prune a fruit tree, the more one eventually will need to cut from it.

Although surgery is always traumatic, apple trees are very resilient, and i have found that when needed, a cherished apple tree can survive amputations of obscene magnitude. As you may deduce by the size of its trunk and scars, this dwarfed hulk of a long-standing apple tree is making a healthy comeback after it lost three quarter of its wood. The creature was so afflicted that most of its over-elongated and rotting boughs had crashed, leaving relatively little green any lower than the crowns of it’s neighboring pines.. In order to allow a renaissance of the potential below i was forced to bring it way down about four years ago. Yet sitting under its streaming foliage one is still awestruck by the hoary sanctuary of its fabulous girth, which i believe can outlive us all.


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