KC Gardens

Dennis Patton: Simple tips to trimming apple trees — and yes, you have to do it

By Dennis Patton

Apple tree.
Apple tree. Submitted.

Fresh homegrown fruit sounds absolutely wonderful. Who would not like to pick a fresh red juicy apple from your own tree in the backyard? Unfortunately the fantasy does not always match reality. When it comes to fruit trees people tend to have good intentions. But somewhere along the line many trees, especially apple trees, become neglected and overgrown.

The most common issue is that people are fearful, or, let’s be honest, forgetful when it comes to pruning. Skipping a year or two of proper pruning soon leads to an overgrown mess of tangled limbs that result in poor fruit production and an eyesore in the landscape. This leads to an overwhelming feeling of, “What can be done to save this poor neglected tree that holds so much promise?”

Never fear, there are some steps that can be taken to gain control over all those unruly branches.

With that said, in extreme cases the best course of action is to make one pruning cut at ground level and start over with a new tree. However, trees may have sentimental value that will make revitalization worth the time and effort. Realize that this will be a multi-year process because no more than 30 percent of the tree should be removed in one year.

The first step is to remove all the dead wood. Dead wood provides no benefit to the trees. The good news is deadwood does not count toward the 30 percent yearly limit. The next step is to remove suckers from the base of the tree. These are the small shoots pointing straight up around the trunk. They serve no purpose except to weaken the tree.

The first two steps are easy as they do not require much decision-making. Now the going gets a little tougher, as decisions must be made.

Choose about six of the best branches to keep as scaffold branches. A scaffold branch is nothing more than a fancy term for the limb structure of the tree. Remove all others. These scaffold branches should be spaced somewhat evenly around the tree to form the more natural structure of the tree. Cutting healthy limbs may be difficult but just do it.

Branches should be cut flush to the branch collar. The collar is the natural swelling that occurs where a branch connects to the trunk or to a larger branch. Removing the collar would leave a larger wound that would take additional time to heal.

Do not paint wounds. Wounds heal more quickly if left open.

Candidates for removal include branches with narrow crotch angles, which are more likely to break in wind and ice storms, and those that cross branches that are being spared. This may be all that is possible for the first year if the 30 percent threshold has been reached.

The next step is to thin or remove the branches on each scaffold branch. Remove crowded branches to open up the tree to sunlight and allow humidity to escape. Sunlight penetrating the tree is vital for good fruit production.

Next, shorten each scaffold branch by cutting back to a side branch. How do you know when you have pruned enough in the process? It’s simple. A properly pruned apple tree should have enough wood removed so that a softball can be thrown through the tree. How is that for scientific pruning?

Severe pruning, greater than 30 percent in one year will cause an apple tree to produce vigorous side shoots from the trunk called water sprouts. Main branches will produce suckers that grow straight up. The suckers and water sprouts should be removed throughout the growing season so the center of the tree stays open. This also keeps you on top of the pruning so that your efforts are not wasted.

Pruning fruit trees can be done anytime now through bud break. Are you up to the task? Pruning is not easy, but armed with a sharp saw, loppers and good information you can conquer your fear and take back your overgrown trees. The end result should be flavorful fruit this fall. For more information K-State Extension has a helpful publication titled Pruning Fruit Trees that can be found by clicking here.

And for a video on pruning fruit trees, click here.