Dormant-Pruning Apples for Strength

| 3/28/2011 1:22:51 PM

Winter apple treeWinter is fading — so what’s there to do on an apple orchard?

When thinking about orchards a person immediately imagines fall weekends with leaves turning brown, a chill in the air and hayrack rides out through the rows of ripened apples. So what does an orchard look like the other seasons of the year? Well, it is going to be spring soon and the image is quite different. The trees are still dormant — their buds haven’t even started to swell for spring yet.

This is the time of year when orchardists are scrambling to finish up the things they were supposed to do over the whole winter season. Finishing the last of the dormant pruning is the main priority now. There’s an old saying that you dormant prune for growth and shape (and you summer prune for production). Years of trial and error have given us enough wisdom to know how to shape our trees for high Midwest winds and violent thunderstorms. 

We tend to prune our trees a little more open than we would if we lived in the city or in a sheltered area. This allows more wind to flow through the tree, reducing stress, which is very important to the more brittle varieties such as Honeycrisp. Years ago we let some Honeycrisp trees grow unchecked. In the summer of 2007 we had a very strong storm system move through and the next day we had Honeycrisp tumbleweeds eight foot tall blowing around the orchard! An added bonus to this open shape is that there is less likelihood of a fungal disease forming on a tree that dries out quickly after a rain. Many problems that we encounter can be overcome with some basic knowledge of a variety’s characteristics. I recommend doing a little research on what you want to grow and compare it to what you should grow.

We do all of our grafting in the evenings and on weekends this time of year. I’ll go into grafting another time as there’s so much info on this subject to write several books. Our bench grafted trees are stored at 34 degrees F immediately after grafting to await potting. We keep a close eye on the weather up until May 1. This is the latest date that we’ve had a surprise frost in our area (Eastern Kansas). After the danger of a late frost has passed we pot our baby trees. 

Our best growth results have come from potting our benchgrafts for just the first season. A mix of native soil 50-50 with a loose potting soil gives us great root growth and reduced transplant shock  I tell our customers to plant their trees before the first freeze of the fall. You’ll want to get your trees out of the pots and in the ground before they become root-bound.  Many nurseries sell large trees in small pots — avoid these at all costs. Our fresh bench grafted trees will typically grow 5 feet tall their first year. If we have trees over 3 foot tall by late summer I will go ahead and make the first heading cut in late August. 

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