Pruning Old Apple Trees
I purchased a home with some older apple trees that have not been properly pruned for years. They originally had some good branches at a lower level, but they have grown tall and most of the fruit is in the taller branches where it is difficult to pick. Is it appropriate to remove some of the upper growth to have most of the fruit where it is easier to pick? Will those lower branches recover their fruit bearing ability? Is now a good time to prune them?
Yes it is possible to remove upper growth on apple trees and rejuvenate the lower parts of the tree. I have done it many times. However, it requires more than one year to accomplish.
The first branches to remove are ones that have grown straight up from the middle part of the tree. Cut them off where they are attached to the trunk or another large branch. Other upper branches can be removed in the same way. Follow the branch back to where it branched off the trunk and remove it at that point. In some cases there will be a side branch on the large branch you are removing which is growing where you want it. Then remove the large branch just above where the side branch is located.
Wherever branches are crossing or growing into each other, remove some of them. Remove the branches which are growing up or toward the center of the tree. Leave the branches which are most horizontal and growing outward.
You will also have smaller branches growing straight up. Remove these at their source. Many additional small branches will grow straight up from where you have made your pruning cuts this spring. All of these branches which are called “water sprouts” should be removed between mid May and early June when they are less than a foot long. The new water sprouts can be removed quickly and easily just by snapping them off while they are young and flexible. Snapping is preferred to cutting because it leaves less tissue where more sprouting can occur.
The main pruning job in succeeding years is to remove all the water sprouts and thin remaining branches that grow into each other. If you do this every year in the early spring and summer, new growth will develop on the lower branches which will bear fruit.
February is an excellent time to prune fruit trees and most deciduous shade and evergreen trees.