Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pruning Apple Trees in Winter

Yes that's right.  I said pruning in winter.

Although it's cold and snowy, winter is a great time to prune as the apple trees are dormant.  That means there isn't any sap flowing.

Decked out in full winter attire
If you cut while the sap is flowing it may bleed, attracting insects and bacteria which can lead to disease. In winter there are no insects and the cold doesn't allow for bacteria growth. Also consider that sap is the source of a tree's food and energy. If you prune out branches in winter, when the sap does begin to flow that energy will be directed to the branches that are intact. A tree that is pruned during summer will still send energy to a pruned branch. That energy will have nowhere to go and will result in excess vertical growth called water spouts.

Notice the water spouts at the base of this trunk, on the right side.
Another reason to prune in winter is that you want to clearly see the structure of the tree so you know exactly what branches you are removing. Cutting when the branches are bare of leaves and apples allows you to do this.

You also don't want to prune when there are apples on the tree. Falling branches can knock apples down or bruise them.

Pruning in winter doesn't come without its issues though.  We found ourselves sinking in the deep snow so we decided to strap on snowshoes.  They proved a bit difficult to manuvre in.

I now know that trying to walk backgrounds through snow while dragging heavy branches is difficult at the best of times, let alone doing it in showshoes. Perhaps waiting a few more weeks for the snow to disipate couldn't have hurt.  It is okay to wait for the weather to be more cooperative, just make sure you prune before it gets too warm.  We did this pruning almost a month ago and could still prune now in mid-March but spring is quickly approaching and I wouldn't want to wait much longer.

Now you might be wondering, didn't we prune our apple trees in November too?  It's true, we did.  At that time we were simply removing dead branches which is something you can do at any time of year.  If a branch is dead nothing more can hurt it so you can feel free to remove these branches whenever you see them.  We also removed three trees in their entirety.  Again, at this point you're killing the tree anyway so it doesn't matter when it's done.

If we removed dead branches in November you might wonder what were we pruning for now?

This tree had many low hanging branches on the left side.
Since our orchard hasn't received any attention in quite some time we were focussed on removing branches to make it more accessible and easier to maintain.  Hubby has to mow the grass around the orchard and was having a lot of difficulty.  I also found myself getting hit in the head by low branches so we attempted to remove as many of those as possible.
A small chainsaw was used to remove the large low hanging limbs.
It is important to note that you should never remove more than one third of a tree's branches at any given time when pruning.  Sometimes we forget that a large portion of a tree lives underground.  The size of the root system is in proportion to the canopy and if too much of the canopy is removed the balance is disrupted.  As noted earlier this can cause water spouts and other irregular growth. 
Many branches came down from many trees
but never more than 1/3 from a single tree.
This pruning is the first step towards renovating this old orchard.  Next year we will concentrate on pruning branches higher in the tree canopies to improve air circulation and light which will benefit fruit production.


  1. I love to see this old orchard being renovated! I grew up in an apple orchard (literally, our house was built in an old orchard and our half acre yard had about 8 trees surrounding the house). Seeing your apples takes me back . . .

  2. Same as Laurrie. My grandfather's estate had an apple orchard and I used to ride my horse there and the two of us would fill up on apples. Memories.

  3. My uncle had an apple orchard. As a kind, I LOVED running through the orchard! It smelled good, too. I miss him (and the orchard). :-)

  4. A couple years ago, a friend of mine nearby (I call him my apple tree guru) shared much the same info that you have and helped me prune the wild apples growing out back. It definitely helped.

  5. Reading through the comments here I was struck how everyone has such wonderful memories of apple orchards. One of my favourite aspects of this orchard is it's history. Who planted it, what trees did they choose, how the apples were used. These trees are precious as they are a part of my community's history. I'm hoping to invite a neighbour lady to come by next fall when the apples are ripe to take a walk with me. Her aunt used to own our house and she knows many of the trees. Hopefully she can shed some light on the story behind the orchard.

  6. Liz - I'm glad to hear the advice helped your tree. I'm hoping that over the next few years our trees will become healthier from our efforts but some of our trees seem pretty far gone.

  7. Well, I have a bad memory about an apple orchard lol! I was riding my friend's mini-bike (moped) which I had never ridden before (I was 14) and hit a gopher hole and went
    a_ _ over teakettle headfirst into an apple tree. I had a helmut on but have no memory of the rest of that day as I had a concussion. But I still love apples!

  8. wow Marguerite your big branches make the branches I have been cutting look like sticks, hard work but I did laugh at you flat on your back..... I think it is wonderful the orchard belongs to people who clearly love and cherish it, local people must sigh with relief, imagine if someone had bought the house and cut the trees down, it would be nice to know more about it, Frances

  9. You are pretty intrepid... I can't bring myself to do squat outside in the winter, and I really have no excuse...

  10. This is awesome information! I always prune the extra branches away from the interior of my crepe myrtles in the late fall simply because it's easier to see where the problems are w/o any leaves. The trees always look great the next spring. But now that I know the WHY thanks to you, I feel so smart!

  11. Jane - despite the fall it sounds like you and your friend might have been having quite a good time playing in the apple orchard!

    Frances - we've had a lot of good feedback from neighbours in the last year. This house has fallen into disrepair on several occasions (even abandoned at one point) so everyone seems to notice and appreciate the work we're doing. It's been a good experience all round I think.

    Jess - normally I'm more of a fair weather gardener but it had been snowing for weeks on end and I was desperate to get outside and do anything. The first spot of sunshine and I ran outside like a little kid.

    TS - I'm glad this was helpful. Sometimes knowing why we are doing something helps to put things in perspective.

  12. excellent instruction, marguerite .. i'm looking forward to the continuing story of your orchard ..

  13. It will be fascinating to hear the history of the orchard. Perhaps you have some unusual heirloom varieties in there? That local history neighbourhood news is what makes some blogs sing out from the others.