February 4, 2010 at 8:30 a.m.

Pruning apple trees

Pruning apple trees
Pruning apple trees

As so often happens, a call from a gardener prompts my next article. The question this week involved, when is a good time to prune apple trees? Although the man only had two trees, they had never been pruned. I suggested he attend our kickoff to our spring class series with Jim Birkholz. Jim always draws a large crowd when he does a show-and-tell on pruning fruit trees. The class will be held at the North Branch Senior Center, Tuesday, March 23, at 6:30 p.m. Jim will also discuss rejuvenating old, neglected trees that most of us seem to have.

Jim owns and operates the Pleasant Valley Orchard south of Shafer. He starts pruning his apple trees the first part of February and because Jim has more than 2,300 trees, he often doesn't finish until the first few days in April. As with many species of trees, there is a window when you should prune or not. For apple trees you don't want to prune in the dead of winter for fear of winter damage. However, pruning in late spring or early summer, you are inviting fungal diseases like fire blight into tree wounds that haven't had a chance to heal.

Whenever you prune don't add tar as it keeps the wound from healing naturally. Weather conditions like temperature, depth of snow, and the number of trees that need pruning, also dictate when you start pruning.

When pruning any tree start by cutting out broken, dead or diseased branches. Next, focus on the tree structure, size, and shape. Focus on removing competing branches or co-dominant leaders. Those are the branches in the center of the tree fighting to be the tallest. Two competing leaders can easily serve as a breaking point as the tree matures.

Renovating old, neglected trees is hard work. One should stop and ask why before starting. There is usually one of three reasons why you should take on this task. First, you may want to improve the appearance of the tree. The second reason is to restore an old tree that has some sentimental value. The third and main reason is that you want to again get more and better fruit. It will take about three years to complete the renovation process and in that amount of time, you could be harvesting fruit from a healthy, young, semi-dwarf tree.

I started my orchard in 1983 with about one hundred standard trees mainly because dwarf and semi-dwarf apple trees were not recommended at that time. About half of the trees were Haralson and Haralred that had the reputation of harvesting every other year. I had already pruned out the center or main leader, (I wouldn't recommend that anyone else do that), but I had to do it so the trees would be manageable. They still were bearing fruit every other year until I started taking Jim's pruning classes. Jim taught me that by keeping the middle of the tree clean so that the tree can get adequate sunlight and air movement, they should produce fruit every year. Guess what? Now, I get ample fruit from my Haralson and Haralred trees every year.

Learn more about pruning apple trees by attending the pruning class. Before that, come to our 12th Annual Spring Gardening Bonanza and Town and Country Expo. It will be held on Saturday, March 13, 8:30 a.m. -3 p.m. at the Chisago Lake Lutheran Church, in Center City, MN. Information about the Bonanza, Plant order forms, and the spring class schedule should be mailed soon to those on our mailing list. If you want to be on the mailing list or want further information, call our Extension Office at 213-8904.




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