By Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
As February is the ideal month to prune and plant fruit trees, we are loading up on local favorites here at the garden center. The most consistently producing fruiters in the mountains of Arizona are apples. If you’re thinking of adding an apple tree to your landscape, use this great chart I found. It really simplifies making a selection from the many apple varieties available.
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 its fruit. Pruning encourages the tree to grow more of these fruiting spurs by removing competing suckers and unproductive wood. If you already have a well established, but overgrown apple tree, you’ll find it pretty easy to prune if you follow these 8 steps in sequence.
Step #1 ~ Remove Any Wood that is Unproductive and Attracts Problems – Start your pruning by removing any dead, damaged, or diseased branches. Dead wood will be dark or brittle, often with the bark falling away from the branch. Diseased wood is often a different color from the other branches. The branch pictured here is damaged and the open wound is an invitation to insects and disease. You can, and should, prune dead and injured wood at any time of the year.
Step #2 ~ Prune & Remove Suckers – 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.
Each of these unwanted growths simply saps energy from the plant. Removing them first when pruning will help you see the structure of your tree and make it easier to see where more cuts are necessary.
Step #3 ~ Prune 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 Possible Problems – Prune out any downward growing 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 out now before they do damage to the branches you need in the tree’s scaffold.
Step #5 ~ Keep Your Apple Tree Pruned to One Main Leader – Step back and get a full view of the tree. It should have one main leader, or central trunk.
Step #6 ~ Prune to Outward Facing Bud – When pruning out an entire branch, 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 lower existing branch.
If you were to cut beyond the inward facing branch, you would be encouraging a new branch that would cross and/or shade the existing inner branch and eventually would have to be removed.
Step #7 ~ Clear 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 a ruthless thinner, 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 at this time, 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. An old adage tells us that a bird should be able to fly through an 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.
Step #8 ~ Spray with Horticultural Oil, Fertilize with ‘All Purpose Plant Food’ – When the pruners are put away and cleanup is completed it’s time to spray the entire tree with Watters’ “Horticultural Oil”. This all-natural oil coats remaining insect eggs that can “bug” your tree and prevents adult pests from attacking fruits. Make sure to spray the bark, main branches, and the base of the tree thoroughly.
The last step is to apply a good plant food. I’ve created the perfect food for local fruit production: “All Purpose Plant Food’ 7-4-4. Spread it liberally at the recommended rate along the entire drip line. In fact, it’s time to feed everything in the yard with this same “local” plant food. Plants are just waking up and they are hungry; this springtime feeding gets them off to the right start.
Until next issue, I’ll see you at Watters Garden Center.