Courtesy Lance Ellis
Trees are a long-term investment. The first step to establishing a good tree is proper planting, which I recently covered. The next step is to properly prune your tree. The first step to properly pruning any tree is to select the right tree for the right place.
A standard apple tree will continually try to reach 30 – 35 feet in height. So, if you don’t want to always be climbing a ladder or fighting the size of the tree, don’t buy a standard apple tree. Select a semi-dwarf apple tree for the home landscape. Full-dwarf apples usually have a weaker graft, so they are fine if you are going to do espalier or if you plan to build a sturdy support system.
Trees that are selected and planted when they are small will establish quicker than larger trees. Larger trees take longer to get past transplant shock, and smaller trees will often catch up to larger trees that are planted at the same time.
Young apple tree pruning should start a year or two after it has been planted. Do not do any pruning for at least a year after it has been planted. Your first objective should be to get the root system established. In addition, you will likely have a better branch selection if you allow the trunk to get a little taller before training.
Pruning should not be an effort to “cut back” a tree. If you are always cutting back a tree to keep it from getting too large, you either have the wrong tree, or you have the right tree in the wrong place. Pruning is the act of directing the tree to grow where you want it to grow.
Courtesy Lance Ellis
General apple pruning rules
Remove any dead, diseased, or damaged branches.
Prune no more than 1/3 of the canopy out in any given year. Excessive pruning throws the tree:root ratio out of balance and results in a lot of water sprouts and suckers as the tree tries to re-establish enough leaves to feed the roots.
Determine if you are going to have an open-vase tree, or a modified leader tree. An open-vase tree is most common in home landscapes. This involves selecting four or five scaffold branches that radiate evenly out from the trunk, so the tree is not unbalanced. (Scaffold branches are the main branches that come off the trunk of the tree.) There should be 6 inches or more between where each scaffold branch attaches to the trunk so there is not too much stress at any one point on the trunk.
Select your scaffold branches wisely. Be sure they are high enough that you can work under the tree, yet low enough that you don’t have to do a lot of ladder climbing to maintain the tree and harvest the fruit.
Select scaffold branches that have a strong crotch angle. Strong crotch angles are closer to 90 degrees than 45 degrees. There will also be a small bark ridge between the trunk and the branch.
Once the scaffolds are determined, that may be all you can do the first time you prune.
The next season you can work at removing water sprouts (branches growing straight up) and hangers.
Don’t leave stubs.
Proper pruning practices when a tree is young will help you get many years of pleasure from your investment.
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