Dormant-Pruning Apples for Strength

Reader Contribution by Rick Godsil Jr.
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Winter 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. 

I prune most trees to my “3” method, a type of central leader pruning. I prune vigorous trees somewhere in the 3 foot range in the late summer. The height at which you make this first cut will determine the height of your first set of scaffold branches. When people ask me what height to make their first prune I usually respond with “how big is your mower”? One thing that you need to keep in the back of your mind is that the branches will bend down years later from the weight of the crop. After this first cut is made the tree will compensate for lost wood by sending out side branches and typically a new vertical shoot. If possible I will prune (or pinch) out competing branches to arrive at our first set of three equally spaced scaffold limbs. The key here is to think about what the tree will look like years from now. If you had five limbs growing in a ring at three feet off the ground they will rub against each other years from now. Damaged limbs invite disease. Three limbs will keep your future pruning to a minimum. This is not an exact science and your tree may not cooperate — I have trees with two limbs at this height and I have trees with four limbs. Three is the goal but you can work with what you get. Down the road every three feet of height on a tree I prune the next set of three scaffold branches. Doing this will naturally give your tree a spindly Christmas tree shape with a defined trunk running vertical — often referred to as the “central leader” method of pruning.

The photo included with this post is of a Fuji tree pruned to as close to the ideal shape that I could with what nature provide for me to work with. In later posts, I will touch on scaffold branch training and how to maximize your tree’s crop.

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