By Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
February is the ideal month to prune and plant fruit trees and we are loading up on local favorites here at the garden center. The most consistent fruiter in the mountains Arizona is apples. I found this great chart that really simplifies the apple choices.
Most fruit trees grown in home gardens are spurring types. A spur is a short (3-5″) branch where the apple tree flowers and sets fruit. Pruning encourages the tree to grow more of these fruiting spurs by removing competing suckers and unproductive wood. It’s pretty easy to prune an overgrow tree if you follow these 8 steps in sequence. I hope you find this helpful.
Free shipping when buying directly from the farm and you pick your plants up at Watters Garden Center. These aren’t tiny 2” plugs or tree whips like other sites. Shop directly from all 2500 acres and we will add your order to the next truck that delivers to Watters Garden Center. Here’s the link to shop from the farm.
Step #1 Remove Any Wood that is Unproductive and Attracts Problems – Start your pruning by removing any dead, damaged or diseased branches. Deadwood will be dark or brittle, often with the bark falling away. Diseased wood is often a different color than the other branches. The branch here is damaged and the open wound is an invitation to insects and further disease. You can, and should, prune dead and injured wood at any time of the year.
Step #2 Pruning & Removing Suckers from Apple Tree Branches – We prune plants to encourage more growth, but not all growth is welcome.
Suckers -are branches growing from the base of the tree.
Whorls –are branches that grow from and encircle another branch.
Water sprouts –are thin branches that usually grow straight upright and rarely bear fruit.
Super 2-minute YouTube on suckers by University of Illinois Extension
Each of these simply saps energy from the plant. Removing them early in pruning will also help you see the structure of your tree and make it easier to see where further cuts are necessary.
Step #3 Pruning Low Branches – Get rid of any branches within about 4′ of the ground. They will be too shaded to produce any apples and they’ll just invite animals to nibble.
Step #4 -Prune Out Future Problems – Prune out any downward facing branches. They too will be shaded and won’t be productive. Next focus on removing any branches that cross or rub against larger branches. As these grow, they will get thicker and heavier. Prune them now before they do damage to the branches you need in your scaffold.
Step #5 – Keeping Your Apple Tree Pruned to One Main Leader – Step back and view the tree again. It should have one main leader or central trunk.
Step #6 – Outward Facing Bud Photo – When pruning out an entire branch, you can cut back to the collar of the branch, slightly away from the trunk. Just follow the ring of the collar.
When partially pruning the branch, you’ll want to try and prune to an outward facing bud. In the photo above, you can see that the outward bud is directed away from the neighboring branch. Cutting just above this bud will encourage it to sprout a new branch that will grow out, away from the other existing branch.
If you were to cut above the inward facing branch, you would be encouraging a new branch that would cross and/or shade the existing inner branch and would eventually have to be removed.
Step #7 Clearing the Clutter
Now you can focus on thinning interior branches so that sunlight can reach all the fruits and each branch sits at a nice, strong angle of greater than 45 degrees from the leader. Be as ruthless as possible, without removing more than about 1/3 of the branches. Remove all spindly growth. Remember, all of this pruning is going to result in new growth, so the more you get rid of here, the less you’ll have to deal with later.
Finally, make sure that upper branches are shorter than the lower branches. Your final result should look like a pyramid with well spaced horizontal branches. The old adage tells us a bird should be able to fly through your apple tree without its wings touching a branch.
It may look extreme when you’ve finished, but your tree will bear healthier fruit and be easier to harvest as a result of these efforts.
If you’ve read this far I have a free gift for you. I wrote a local fruit tree book that goes deep into fruit trees from pruning to planting. Here’s the link to the free download:
Step #8 – Spray with Horticultural Oil and Fertilize with ‘All Purpose Plant Food’ 7-4-4. When the pruners and put away and the cleanup is complete it’s time to spray the entire tree with Watters “Horticultural Oil”. This all-natural oil coats remaining eggs that will bug your tree and prevent adults from attacking your fruits. Make sure the thoroughly spray the park, main branches and the base of the tree.
We have these products here at Watters Garden Center, but here’s an Amazon link to have them delivered for those of you outside Arizona.
The last step is a good plant food. I’ve created the perfect food for local fruit names “All Purpose Plant Food’ 7-4-4. Spread liberally at the recommended rate under the entire drip like circling your tree. In fact, it’s time to feed everything in the yard with this same local plant food. Plants are waking and hungry, this food gets them off to the right spring start.
Until next issue, I’ll be helping locals with fruit trees here at Watters Garden Center.