Sunday, February 26, 2012

Broken Apple Branches

Although the majority of action in the apple orchard takes place in the fall it is only now in mid-winter that I finally find myself with the time to spare to talk about the goings on there.  The problem with having an apple orchard is that from August to November we are consumed by apples.  There is no time for anything else.  We pick from trees, we collect them from the ground, we constantly taste test to check for ripeness, we compost them, we bake and cook and freeze.  Now in February, with a mug of cider and a slice of pie to sustain me, I'm finally able to talk about it.

An issue we have noticed after two seasons of caring for this orchard is that by the end of summer the tree limbs are heavy with fruit and hanging low to the ground.  The apples are fully formed but not yet ripe and we found this year there can be disastrous consequences in this situation if your trees aren't prepared to bear the load.


This tree at the front of our property produces bushels of apples each year.  This year, under the weight of all that fruit, one of the limbs gave way.


Unfortunately it was not a clean break.  Instead it ripped the bark right from the trunk which is further bad news for this tree.  Tears in the bark are prime targets for fungus and disease to infest your plant.  We were able to cut the branch off but the damage was already done.


As you can see the branch that came down was loaded with unripe apples which were a loss.  And now the tree is open to having its health compromised.

This open wound is now a prime target for disease
What could have been done to prevent this?  Early each summer we thin our apple trees removing fruit that is too small or shows signs of deformities and disease.  By thinning the fruit we are providing the apples that remain with more space and nutrients to grow their very best.  However, thinning fruit is also another way to decrease the weight load on your trees so that branches don't become too heavy and snap.

Another preventative measure is to carefully prune your fruit trees when they are young.  Branches should be evenly spaced and grow at a wide angle from the trunk.  Ideally the angle should be 60 to 70 degrees from the tree trunk.  Branches growing at an angle of 45 degrees or less are at higher risk of breakage due to bark build up between the branch and the tree trunk.

This old tree already has a number of health problems and I suspect it won't last much longer but we'll be watching other trees in the orchard this year for branches that look overly heavy and acting accordingly.




21 comments:

  1. Broken limbs are such a common occurrence on older trees, especially when the fruit is not thinned. You are so right about proper pruning too. I cannot image the work involved in having an orchard. A couple of trees would be too much to handle,let alone a whole orchard of them.

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    1. Donna, I agree. Properly managing a large orchard would be mountains of work. I must confess, we do as much as we are able but focus mainly on the trees that are in good health and producing well already. There are lots of trees we ignore as they are in such poor condition or the apples just aren't that tasty.

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  2. While we only have one apple tree in our yard thinning the fruit is a way of life. It appears to occur naturally with the loquats and avocados, but the mangoes we take off at least 90%. We have been here for 4 years now and every season is a learning curve.

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    1. Wow, you take off quite a bit! Our trees tend to drop quite a few apples early in the season on their own and hurricanes in summer take a number as well and I always worry that too many have gone to waste. I could take some pointers on being a bit more hard nosed when it comes to thinning!

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    2. Our trees are young yet and need as much strength to grow as they can get. With older trees my inclination would be not to be as hard nosed as we are being right now.

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  3. I was going to suggest thinning Marguerite and though you do thin small and distorted fruit perhaps you need to thin more, especially with those 45 degree limbs, over here in the UK living in the south east of England and with an Uncle manager of a fruit farm when I was a child I remember seeing limbs supported with stakes in the ground about half way along the limb,
    could you have painted the open wound with something to help protect it and cut it clean and flush,
    did you make your own cider? Frances

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    1. Frances, I read a bit about supporting overly heavy limbs but I would worry about rubbing the bark away doing this. We're probably best to thin the fruit in a more extreme manner as you suggest. In this particular case the tree itself is in a bad way. You can't quite see it from the angle of the photos but the trunk has sustained major damage (before we came here) and we don't expect this tree to survive much longer. It's kind of odd really that it produces so much fruit but maybe it's trying to spread its seed before it dies.

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    2. your probably right about the over production of fruit on the tree, I have read that plants have a last fling before dying, have to say the thought of bark rubbing off had occurred to me too, they must do it some special way, as children we never looked that hard just took short cuts through the orchards and ate some of the fruit when in season ;o)

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  4. I agree he is probably toast, but we had a tree nearly cut in half by lightning in the 80s that is still alive today. So you never know!

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    1. It's amazing what they will live through isn't it? We're enjoying this tree while we can but honestly just focusing efforts on trees that aren't so badly damaged.

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  5. That looks frightening. We have had some trees in our wooded area that were diseased, and we had to have them cut down. In the orchard, there must be a lot of tending.

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    1. One thing about trees is they need as much care as any other plant. When we lived on the west coast every year the trees had to be looked over and generally a few were taken out. They can cause a lot of damage if they fall in the wrong spot and thinning also helps the health of all the trees.

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  6. I'm not a gardener by any stretch of the imagination so I'm just going to throw an idea your way that might help the 'wound' on your tree. My hubs did this to a tree that had a rather large branch that needed to be cut off. He covered the 'wound' with paraffin wax to protect it from disease.

    We have two sad apple trees that the elderly lady who owned this home before planted in the worst place. They are crowded in and amongst an array of evergreens and chokecherries. The don't do well at all except for the first season we lived here. A shame because both varieties are excellent.

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    1. Michelle, you're right, there's a number of treatments you can put on an open wound like that and I think a number of them are or include wax. One issue when planting trees is remembering that eventually they'll be huge. Either you plant close knowing you'll have to thin eventually or space them out and wait forever for the space to fill in.

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  7. Growing up in an old apple orchard, we always had branches down in our yard. Our trees were not maintained like yours are, and they were old, but they still fruited. Basically they were falling apart each year. You are putting a lot of work into restoring your historic orchard and it's rewarding. These are certainly not maintenance free trees!

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    1. Laurrie, our orchard feels very similar. Each year we're seeing some trees just give up and there's not much we can do at this point. It would be great if we could save at least a few of them though and make them reasonably healthy.

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  8. This tree looks much like one we had until a year ago, when a strong wind broke off the main branch, and we finally had to cut the whole thing down. I suspect it had already been weakened by disease, making it more susceptible to breaking. Now we're left with only one apple tree, which my husband pruned pretty severely last fall, so I won't have many apples this year, I suspect. Thinning the fruit is excellent advice--I remember learning this in my MG classes, too.

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    1. Rose - this tree is much the same. It's already a very old tree and has scab and other issues so it was just more susceptible to breaking anyway. I wonder if the pruning your husband did might actually create fewer but larger fruits for you? It will be interesting to see what a dramatic prune will do. We're doing our pruning just small bits at a time so the changes are quite minimal from year to year.

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  9. In my MG class we did a lot more fruit tree pruning instruction than we did in Virginia. I am amazed at the amount of pruning needed for both apples and peaches. (and how differently they are pruned) Around here there are a few orchards that have a rail/fence around the apple trees to support the heavy limbs. Maybe that could be a solution.

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    1. Janet, it sounds like a lot of people use supports. I would have thought the potential for rubbing off tree bark would be a problem but maybe it's more beneficial than I realized.

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