Growing apple and pear trees in the garden can yield tasty reward every year. Training and pruning are essential to healthy and productive fruit trees. Fruit size, quality and pest management are influenced by training and pruning. Neglecting this important task often results in a tangled mass of shoots and branches, insect or disease problems and poor fruit production.
As with all pruning projects, study the tree before you start to prune. Visualize its final shape and size. Begin by looking for branches which criss-cross, grow towards the trunk of the tree or rub against one another. These branches will need to be pruned. Train as much as possible and remove as little as possible. Bending and tying shoots instead of cutting them out, especially on apple and pear trees can induce early fruit production. Use sharp and clean pruning tools to make cuts. This will reduce the chance of disease entering the tree.
Training begins at planting and may be required for several years. In order for the tree to remain productive, annual pruning is required. Two basic pruning cuts are heading and thinning. Heading removes the terminal portion of shoots or limbs. Thinning removes an entire shoot or limb to its point of origin on the main branch or lateral. Light pruning can be performed throughout the growing season to remove broken, injured or diseased branches and to improve air circulation through the center of the tree and around its trunk.
Major removal of twigs and branches should be done during the dormant season, preferably before active growth begins in the spring. Training and pruning procedures vary according to the type, age and variety of fruit crop. The types of branches requiring pruning include suckers, stubs or broken branches, downward-growing branches, rubbing or criss-crossing branches, shaded interior branches, competing leaders and narrow crotches.
Initial Training and Pruning
Too often when an apple trees is planted its left untended for several years, resulting in poor growth and poor fruit production. Apple trees, in order to be productive, need proper pruning early on. In fact, as soon as they are planted they should be pruned and trained to a modified leader, meaning that the main trunk is pruned a given height and several wide angled limbs are selected as side branches. Side branches should be spaced at least 6 inches apart vertically and at equal intervals around the trunk.
The tree should mature to a pyramidal shape. With very young trees, the year in which an apple tree is planted prune back all of its branches. You will be left with what is call an unbranched “whip”. Prune this back to about 28 to 32 inches. Not much pruning is required for the next 2 or 3 seasons. Any pruning that is done during this time is essential to the future growth of the tree. Basically, you’ll want to keep a strong central leader, prevent poor side branches with angles less than 45 degrees and prevent the tree from becoming too leggy. After a couple of years pruning will be centered around removing sucker growth, criss-crossing branches and those which compete with the main trunk. Between three and six branches may be elected as side branches during the first summer. Alternately, allow the side branches to grow throughout the entire season and selectively pruned them during the dormant season.
If young trees are branched when they come from the nursery or garden center, remove any broken branches and those that form angles less than 45 degrees with the main trunk. Examine the branching structure and remove problematic crisscrossing and competing branches. Head-back the central leader by one-third in the second year. Make the cut close to a bud that is growing in a suitable direction or to a lateral branch. Keep pruning to a minimum during the early years to encourage the trees to produce fruiting wood. Pear trees naturally develop narrow angled, upright branches. To train properly angled scaffold branches, either weight the branches, tie branches to pegs in the ground or brace the branches apart with spacer sticks.
Summer pruning is advised, especially for removing waterspouts, rootsuckers and fire-blight-infected wood. Summer pruning can also be used during the first three years of tree training to produce the desired tree shape. Undesired growth should be removed in early summer or after harvest between late August and early September. Also, note that pruning should be focused on thinning out rather than heading-back. Heading-back cuts may stimulate new growth near the cut. If the trees are heavily pruned, reduce the amount of fertilizer applied in relation to the severity of pruning. Heavily pruned trees may not need fertilizer for a year or two.
Pruning Neglected Apple Trees
To rejuvenate a old tree begin by pruning out dead and damaged branches and all the vertical sucker shoots, which are shading out the trunk and interior of the tree, back to their base. This is all that should be done during the first season of rejuvenation since the tree can easily be shocked by extensive pruning. During the second season select 3 to 5 lower side branches which have appropriate crotch angles (more than 45 degrees). Be sure they are space evenly around the trunk. All branches with poor angles and crowding side branches should be removed. Avoid fertilizing in the spring if a hard prune was done the previous winter.