During the off season, we receive a surprising number of messages from our followers about when and how to manage their backyard apple trees. Some people have an old, overgrown tree on their property and aren't sure what to do to produce edible fruit. Others have tried their hands at planting new trees but don't know what to do to keep them healthy and productive. Pruning plays a big role in both of these scenarios but when to prune depends on your desired outcome.
Growing quality apples starts with proper pruning when the tree is dormant during the winter or early spring months. Prolonged freezing temperatures in the winter cause fruit trees to go into a a dormant period where energy is stored in the root system and sap stops flowing. Pruning and thinning cuts made while the tree is dormant will often promote vegetative regrowth as the tree wakes up and attempts to heal where cuts have been made. If a tree has diseased, broken or unproductive branches, winter pruning can be an effective way to replace old limbs that need to be removed. Pruning in winter should be done when average temperatures are still around freezing, but after the harshest conditions have passed. March is often the ideal time in our climate.
Pruning in the summer can also have a beneficial effect on trees and fruit quality. Fruit trees, particularly ones that have been winter pruned, will typically push out vegetative (i.e. no fruit) shoots that can excessively shade growing fruit and lower limbs, preventing colour and sugar development. A cluttered and busy tree canopy can also be a breading ground for nasty diseases that can infect fruit, or worse, the tree itself. Prune out some of these shoots in the summer to allow light and air to reach the trunk and internal parts of the tree, but avoid making large cuts and structural changes to the tree in summer. Summer cuts made about a month before harvest will heal, but are far less likely to result in undesirable regrowth.
Pruning is often considered more of an art than a science. Depending on who you ask, particular techniques or preferences can vary quite a bit. Even the experts can disagree! We rely on over 40 years of growing experience to guide our practices and get the most out of our orchard. Even still, we are constantly learning and experimenting with new techniques in an effort to improve the health and productivity of our trees.
If you are interested in learning more about how to prune and manage your own fruit trees, consider signing up for our Pruning and Tree Care Workshop, which will be held at the farm on March 21 from 10 am - 1 pm. Advanced booking is a must as spaces are limited. Check out our event listing for more information!