Category Archives: Orchard Care

How to Trim a Fruit Tree

Just like when trimming grapes, there is a good way to trim a fruit tree and a bad way to trim one. If your goal is to trim your fruit tree for optimum fruit production, there are a few key things to consider while pruning.

How to Trim a Fruit Tree.

Apple trees and plum trees are the most forgiving if you heavily prune them. They readily produce sucker growth and water shoots. More delicate fruit trees, such as peaches and apricots should be pruned less aggressively. Take too much off and you will stunt the tree’s growth and production. There are a few very basic rules for all fruit trees.

  • Start with the right equipment and don’t stint on price. You’ll want good-quality 18-inch loppers, pruners and handsaw. There are many different styles, lengths and price ranges on pruning equipment. The trick is to not buy more than you need but be sure to buy what you do need. Make sure it is sharp enough, long enough, sturdy enough and easy to sharpen for what you will be pruning.  If you need to use a ladder, be sure it’s a sturdy one in good condition.
  • The best time to prune is late fall after leaves are off, but any time from December through February before they start to bud again will work.
  • Remove dead, dying and diseased limbs first.
  • Take out crossing limbs and remove limbs that grow down or straight up.
  • Clear out the center of the tree, and prune the top of the tree more heavily than the lower portion.
  • Only take out one-third of the limbs at once, and for a peach or apricot, only take out about one-quarter every 3-4 years and only if necessary to promote better fruiting.

How a branch should be trimmed.On young trees, pruning encourages a strong, solid framework for future fruit and picking; on mature trees, pruning encourages fruit production to continue at high yields if so desired. The final cut on each unwanted branch needs to be alongside the “branch collar”, a raised ring of bark where the branch intersects with another branch. Growth cells concentrate in these nodes, causing fast bark regrowth which seals the cuts. The idea is to leaf a slight nob where the cut is as shown in the photo.

Usually when you purchase fruit trees from a nursery, they are already trimmed the way they should be to get them through the first 3-4 years. Once they start getting a lot of new growth, that’s the time to tame the beast a bit.

Step by step how to prune apple trees.

1. Clean up

Start by pruning away branches that are diseased, damaged or dead. If there are any sprouts coming from the base of the trunk, prune those out too. These are known as suckers and they originate from the rootstock rather than the fruiting tree grafted onto it. Prune away any straight stems sprouting from main branches – these are water shoots and are often a sign of over vigorous pruning over one season.

2. Thin out

Aim for the open goblet-shaped canopy which opens up the crown to allow light in and air to move around freely. It boosts fruit production and reduces disease. To create this shape, prune out upward growing interior branches, especially those that rub against each other or criss-cross other branches.

You can also remove leading branches that compete with each other or points where two or more branches grow from the same point and seem to compete with each other. Retain the healthiest branch that’s in the best position. When you’re doing this, keep stopping, stand back and check your work and overall shape of the tree. Make sure you’re working towards evenly spaced branches and the open goblet shape.

3. Make heading back cuts

Heading back means pruning the outside branches of the tree to shorten and thicken them, especially in young trees. It stops branches from getting long and gangly and at risk of snapping. Heading cuts are necessary when pruning young trees, but you’ll make fewer heading cuts as trees mature. It generally involves cutting away 20 to 30 percent of last year’s growth. You can tell which growth is last year’s growth – look for the wrinkly ring of bark encircling each stem. This could be a few centimeters to over a meter back from the tip of the stem. But it depends on the vigor of the tree.

Unlike the previous steps, these cuts will be made part way along each branch. But where you make the cut is really important. Make the cut just above an outward-facing bud.  It will cause a new shoot to grow from the direction the bud is facing in the coming year. It will stimulate growth and encourage branches to grow in the direction you want.

Heading cuts should be avoided once the initial shaping of the tree has been completed as it can cause the tree to become overcrowded. In mature trees, if you need to use a heading cut to shorten a long and thin branch make the cut in old wood as this causes less new growth.

How to Repair Tree Bark Damage

How to Trim and Repair Damaged Trees.

We haven’t posted any news about our orchard reclamation lately, mostly due to the fact that it’s winter, but work goes on. About all we can doing during the winter months is trim trees, and since this orchard was not properly kept up by the previous owners, we have a great deal of trimming to do. Which prompted us to writer an article on the proper way to repair tree damage.

It’s a double whammy for my orchard because not only were the trees not properly trimmed by the previous owners, they turned the apple orchard into a pasture for their horses…and anyone who has horses knows…they chew up everything. Almost every single tree of the 45 or more in the main orchard has severe bark damage due to the horses chewing off the bark. Some of the trees are already dead or near dead, others look like they will recover in time, which will take about 4-5 years to start to recover from the damage. Others will have to be cut down and started all over. If there is enough undamaged bark left at the base of the tree to cut the top off and start new water shoots from what’s left, we are doing that. There are several options when trimming and repairing tree bark damage depending on each individual tree.

tree bark completely gone. Girdled
This tree is completely girdled all the way around. It is dead.

It’s a crying shame that anybody would let their horses destroy such a beautiful orchard and one that is mature with 80 year old heirloom apple varieties. Clearly the previous owners of the property were ignorant to the damage horses cause to trees, or didn’t care. I’ve had horses, and the only way to curb their appetite for chewing on wood is to give them some they are allowed to chew on. I gave my horses firewood that had bark on it and they would chew that off instead of eating my barn or stalls. Never, and I mean never, allow horses around any trees you plan to keep or consider valuable. They will destroy them.

I have brought trees back from the brink of death before. I once purchased a property with a crabapple tree in the front yard that had sustained severe bark damage and had only 3 leaves on the entire tree when we closed on the property. I immediately set to work protecting the tree in hopes it would come back. And come back it did! In just 4-5 years, you would not know it was the same tree. It grew to a beautiful round shape full of leaves and new branches and blossoms that surpassed all the other crabapples in the yard. I was so glad I had taken the time and effort to try and save it, and it rewarded me with beautiful blossoms every spring thereafter.

How Does One Go About Bringing Back a Damaged Tree?

Repairing bark damage on trees is a very slow process: 3-4 years before you might see significant signs of healing and a good 10-12 years for total repair of a severely damaged trunk. Before starting any work on it, you have to take a good look at the tree and see if you believe it actually might recover before deciding to put in the time and effort, or, to just cut it down and plant a new one. The reason being that the outer bark of the trunk is what nourishes the tree. The inner tree,  the trunk inside the outer bark, is just for support purposes only. It does not take up water or nutrients. This is why you want to be so careful with weed trimmers and lawn equipment around young trees with soft bark. It is the outer 1/16th to 1/8th inch of bark that supplies water and nutrients to the entire tree.

If a tree is “girdled” – meaning the outer bark is stripped all the way around the perimeter of the trunk – the tree will die. If a tree is even three quarters girdled around the trunk, it will likely die and is not worth saving. If a tree still has at least half of it’s outer bark around the perimeter of the trunk, it may come back but it will need a lot of TLC. A tree with this much damage will usually die completely on the side of the tree that is missing the bark. All the branches on that side of the tree will die as well. However, the wonderful thing about apple trees is they are extremely prolific. They send out lots of suckers and water shoots, usually to the dismay of any orchardist, however, if you need to bring back a damaged tree, these strays are a God’s send, just make sure you save the ones above any grafts and get rid of the ones below a graft if you want to maintain the true variety of the tree. If you have trees as old and large as mine, you will have to stay a good 2-3 feet off the ground before saving any new growth if you want to preserve the variety of the original tree since there is no evidence of a graft node to go by.

You have two choices with a severely damaged apple tree: You can dead-head it, that is cut off the top and let the lower branches and new growth take off from what’s left of the trunk and create a new canopy, or, if your tree has bark damage and you see new growth anywhere on it (what is called “water shoots or whips), you can preserve them and let them take over by cutting off what’s dead and thinning new growth to allow room. If you chose to do either, you must protect that tender new growth from deer who love to eat it by covering it with bird netting permanently until the growth gets too tall for the deer to reach. Otherwise it will be time and effort wasted. Believe me.

This tree is a mess.
All the trees look like this. A mess with sucker branches, mature trees that are near dead and severely chewed up by horses and deer.

DO NOT USE TREE SEALERS OR WRAPS.

There are a couple different kinds of “tree sealer” for bark damage. One is for grafting and promotes growth but can only be used in small areas such as where branches have been removed. It will do nothing on bark damage.

The other is an asphalt or paint that claims to protect your tree from insects and rot. This part of their statement is true, it will seal the inner bark from insects and mold, however, it may also prevent any new bark from growing in the area where it is applied. If you have severe bark damage, the only way to save the tree is to allow it to grow back the outer bark. If you seal the damaged area, it might stop the outer bark that is left on the tree from growing over that area if the sealant is too thick, which is why people stopped using tar to seal trees with. Besides, tree sealers are a waste of money when a coat of paint will achieve the same thing. But don’t do that either unless you have a very small area of bark damage and are just trying to keep bugs and mold out.

Do not wrap the tree with any kind of tape or tree wraps. Tree wraps just promote insect infestations because it gives the bugs somewhere to hide where the birds and other natural predators can’t find them. Wraps create insect infestations.

If You Think There’s Hope for Your Tree.

If you examine a tree and decide you see enough new growth or potential to save it, now the work begins. Start by cutting off any old dead branches. Next, decide what of the new growth should be saved. If there are a lot of new shoots, thin them out to the strongest looking ones making sure to allow enough room for that branch as it matures. In other words, only keep the water shoots that have the room to grow into 3-5 inch diameter branches. Leave enough room between shoots for such growth. Ideally, try to keep the shoots and new branches down to about 5 or 6 really nice ones. You can always thin them out in years to come once you see how the tree does. Best to give it enough new growth to keep it alive and doing well and thin out any excess as years go by. Also, you will want to trim those water shoots as they grow by cutting the tops off of them before they get too long and gangly to encourage side branches on them and a stronger tree system.

Mature sucker will eventually produce fruit.
Mature sucker will eventually produce fruit.

In some cases, it may be beneficial to cut down the main tree and leave a mature sucker instead if the main tree is a lost cause, such as in the photo to the left. As you can see, the main tree sustained some pretty severe bark damage. We left it only because it may come back with some luck because it’s only about half girdled around the base, however, we also left this mature sucker alongside it in case the main tree does not make it. We will then cut it down and let the sucker take over. With this tree, since we do not know if it was ever a grafted tree or not due to it’s age and large size, we will not know if the sucker will produce apples true to the mature tree. If you are very particular about the variety of your apples, you may not want to start a new tree from a sucker such as this one. This sucker is large enough that it may produce apples this year or next, and then I will decide if it is worth keeping or not.

If the damage is farther up from the base of the tree, you may be able to leave the main tree as a stump, dead-head it, and let the new growth start a new canopy. In very old orchards where the trees have stopped producing, or in the case of severe tree damage, many orchardists cut off the entire tree about 4-5 feet off the ground and let the water shoots that sprout along the sides grow into a new tree. The advantage to this over simply cutting down the entire tree and replacing it is that there is nothing wrong with the root system, and since it is a mature root system, the new growth will take off quickly and often produce fruit much sooner than a young sapling would.

Stump with new growth
Stump with new growth

As you can see in the photo to the right, we completely cut off some of the worst trees and left nothing but a stump with a few water shoots to start taking over. This tree was a small sapling but had broken off right where we cut it. The only option to save this one is to let the water shoots start a new tree. I am confident at least one of the shoot is high enough to be above any graft that might have been used to start this tree, although I cannot see any evidence of one. I suspect this sapling was started from fallen fruit and won’t be true to a variety I want. But we’ll see. It may be large enough to produce fruit in about 5-7 years. Notice we immediately covered the stump and any new growth with bird netting. The deer have already been patrolling the orchard and nibbling on new spring buds. We want to give this poor tree every chance we can or it won’t make it at all.

After All the Pruning is Done.

Last, but certainly not least. After all the pruning is done and any short tree stock is protected with netting, make sure to give your damaged tree a big, healthy dose of organic compost in the spring. A damaged tree needs a lot of nutrients to get it going again and repair itself. Take advantage of the heavier spring rains to drive that compost tea deep into the root base for your recovering tree. Put a thick layer about 2-3 inches deep and at least  3-4 feet wide around the base of the tree. Do not put it up against the base of the tree or it will cause rot. Leave a good 5-6 inches around the base. Every time it rains, the water seeping through the compost will make a nutrient-rich compost tea to feed your tree. It will take off with vigor having a new lease on life. If you live in a drought area, be sure to also mulch this tree well. The last thing you want is for that new growth to dry out or not grow due to lack of moisture.

“What a shame.” I say this every time I walk out to this orchard. For the previous owners to allow their horses to create such damage is a travesty. However, I am confident I can restore it somewhat and what can’t be restored I will replace with grafts. This orchard is at least 80 years old with apple varieties that cannot be bought these days. So, with enough good root stock, we can start to rebuild and restore this once beautiful orchard.