Whether a pyramid crown, spindle or columnar tree, here is how and when you need to prune an apple tree to ensure a rich harvest.
To keep the apple tree healthy, strong and productive, you need to prune it regularly. Because only with an airy crown you can ensure that the apples in the inner and lower area also get enough sun. In addition, a pruned apple tree is less likely to be attacked by fungal diseases and is more resistant to pests. Several factors are crucial for successful pruning: the right time, the optimal pruning shape and a skillful pruning technique. In the following, you can find an overview of the most important tips and instructions for pruning an apple tree.
When to prune the apple tree?
The stronger an apple tree grows, the later it should be pruned. If you want to curb excessive growth or compensate for high yield fluctuations, it is best to prune it in the summer. Otherwise, apple trees are among the woody plants that should be pruned in winter. In fact, the best time for classic pruning is in February or March. Shortly before the new shoots, the rising sap accelerates wound healing and prevents the penetration of pathogens.
How to prune a young apple tree
Pruning determines the future shape of the apple tree. Competing shoots and weak shoots are removed. By pruning, the shape of the crown is usually determined in the first three years in the case of spindle trees and by the seventh year in the case of round-crowned trees.
How to prune an old apple tree
Maintenance pruning is intended to preserve the vitality of the scaffold and fruit shoots. For spindle trees, this requires annual corrections; large, old apple trees are pruned only every two to three years. During rejuvenation pruning, mainly senescent shoots are removed.
How to prune an apple tree with a pyramid crown
The construction of a pyramidal crown is one of the simplest pruning methods for fruit trees. The crown, which is built up from a trunk in the middle and three to four leading branches, corresponds most closely to the natural tree growth.
For the pyramidal crown, first select three to four strong side branches. The bearing branches are ideally spaced equally and at the same height around the center shoot. The angle to the center should ideally be 60 to 90 degrees so that the side branches can carry the main load of the crown well. When pruning, use a pruning saw to remove any stronger excess shoots, and use loppers to cut off any slightly thinner, unsuitable shoots directly on the trunk.
Once the basic framework of the vertical central shoot and the three to four flat lateral leading branches is in place, cut back all lateral shoots by one-third to one-half at the most. The cuts help stimulate branching and should all be at about the same height. Also cut back the central shoot: it should extend about 20 cm (8 in) beyond the side branches.
Older apple trees will grow a wide crown over time. To achieve the desired pyramidal shape, first remove all competing shoots to the central shoot. Then cut back any shoots growing inward or steeply upward. Finally, remove old overhanging fruiting wood. You can rejuvenate these drooping, often heavily branched, branch sections by cutting off all the branches behind an outward-facing bud or a flat-growing, one- to two-year-old branch. Ideally, vertically rising water shoots should be pulled out with a strong jerk in June, during the summer pruning of the apple tree, the so-called June pruning.
How to cut spindle apple trees
A big old apple tree in the garden already has its charm. However, it is not the right choice for yield-oriented amateur gardeners and even for owners of small gardens. They should rather go for the so-called spindle trees. These are grafted on weakly growing rootstocks and therefore remain smaller, get by with less pruning and bear earlier than the large, strongly growing trees. Nevertheless, they produce a similarly good harvest.
Like all apple trees, spindle trees are pruned as soon as they are planted in the fall or spring and brought into shape with the so-called planting pruning. This creates the conditions for an even crown structure and a consistently high yield. The best time for further pruning is late autumn.
Pruning young apple trees as a spindle
If you have planted a new apple tree, you must first ensure that it forms a regular, well-branched crown. The following educational measures will serve this purpose.
Pruning when planting
This pruning is done immediately after planting the apple tree. Remove steeply upright side branches if they are competing with the central shoot for the main part. If you don’t cut them off, over time you will end up with a divided crown with two main shoots, which will become firstly too dense and secondly unstable. The central shoot and all side shoots are slightly shortened so that they branch better.
Tie down side shoots
After pruning, all side branches that are too steep are tied down almost horizontally. With this measure, you inhibit a strong new sprouting of the tree and promote the formation of short side branches with flower buds, from which the fruits will later form. Be careful not to constrict the central shoot and side branches too much and use soft, stretchy binding material such as coir rope or special tubular tape from garden supply stores.
The setup pruning
The next fall after planting, pruning is again required. This pruning should result in the tree branching well and forming the desired spindle-shaped crown. Remove side branches that grow steeply upward and shorten long, unbranched shoots to encourage the formation of fruit-bearing branches. Remove any shoots that either lean too far downward, rub against other shoots, or grow into the crown.
After about five years, the development of the tree crown is complete. Now, the main concern is to maintain the tree’s fruitfulness and ensure that all fruits get enough sunlight and ripen well. Shoots that grow steeply upwards and into the interior of the crown continue to be removed and crown sections that are too dense are thinned out. The oldest fruiting wood is already gone and hardly produces good quality fruit. You can recognize it by the strong branching, and it also often hangs over heavily due to the annual fruit load. Therefore, cut back these old fruiting branches to a younger, vital side branch.
Correctly cut columnar apple trees
Columnar trees are ideal if you want to invest little time and energy in pruning. In a columnar apple tree, short side branches that form the fruiting wood grow from a vertical central shoot up to four meters high (12 ft). Columnar apples are pruned somewhat differently than classic apple trees. If a longer side branch forms on the columnar tree from time to time, it should be removed directly from the trunk at the central axis. Strongly branched or shortened fruit shoots are best shortened to 10 to 15 cm (4 to 6) in early summer. If the central shoot becomes too high after about ten years, you can cut it off in August above a shallower side branch.
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