Apples are among my favourite trees. Besides being great for fruit, they have a great deal of ornamental value in the landscape. They are extremely hardy, and can tolerate the worst abuse and neglect and still thrive. Apples are resilient and adaptable, and can be properly pruned in many ways, from espalier training along a wall or fence, to a variety of maintained shapes and sizes, or minimally pruned to enhance their beautiful, natural round form. They offer a stunning spring flower display and are a compact tree, making them a good choice as a specimen in a small garden. Many fruiting varieties are available for prairie gardeners, but if you don’t pick the fruit, and don’t appreciate the mess of fermenting applesauce in your yard in fall, you’ll be better off choosing a sterile flowering crabapple over these trees. The other caveat I offer is that apples need proper and regular pruning to look their best.
Full Sun but preferably not south-facing where they get full exposure all day. Their thin-barked trunks have a tendency to develop sun-scorch. I place them where I know the trunk will get either filtered sun or a bit of shade from a neighbouring plant.
Time to Prune
Dormancy, from late Fall to mid-April is best. I only prune apples in summer to repair broken branches.
There are many ways to prune an apple, depending on the location of the tree, the desire for fruit, and whether or not a formal shape or a natural form is preferred. Since the majority of people I speak to want “low-maintenance,” I will describe the maintenance for a natural form.
I rarely get the call from people to prune their apple trees until they’ve been in the ground for 10-15 years, minimum. By then, they have developed very poor structure, and radical pruning is sometimes necessary. Even then, I’m sometimes unable to restore a good structure without seriously disfiguring the crown. So on a mature tree that hasn’t had any proper maintenance in the past, you simply remove dead, diseased, and damaged wood, remove redundant or severely crossing and rubbing branches, and manage the overall shape of the tree by pruning back over-extended branches from time to time to make things appear balanced. As with most trees, the goal of pruning should be to have a flow of branches “up and out” from the main trunk. The tree in the picture above has pretty good structure, which was a bit lucky since it hadn’t had any proper maintenance until I pruned it.
The most common thing I see is poor structure like that shown in the apple below, where many or all the of main branches originate from the same point on the trunk. This can be corrected at planting, either by proper structural pruning, or by simply selecting a better plant from the garden centre. A tree like this should have been pruned each year over the first 5 or so years of its life and it would be a much different tree today. It is healthy, but will eventually have problems as the 5 or 6 main limbs crowd each other, create what is knows as included bark, and open the tree up to failure in severe weather. Since that photo was taken, we’ve reduced the height of the crown by about 6′, given it an umbrella-like shape much like an orchard-style tree, and we now prune it annually, favouring flower buds and developing fruiting spurs. The owners preferred a tree that wasn’t any higher than they could safely pick apples off their ladder.
If you have an opportunity to start training a natural-form apple from planting, do the following: Most importantly, select a tree that has a single-stem trunk (called a central leader standard), with well spaced lateral branches. If there are two or more main branches originating from one point, reject the tree. Plant the tree in spot in the yard where it will fit in its mature form without clearance pruning. Most apples mature at about 15-20′ height and width. That means don’t plant the tree any closer to than 8-10′ in all directions from the fence, house, or garage. Trust me on this and you’ll thank me later. When a tree has its space, it is a lot easier to maintain and looks a lot better without regular intervention from the restless husband or the over-zealous neighbour. In the first year, you may not have to make any cuts if you select a good tree. In the second and subsequent years, remove dead, diseased, or broken limbs, and remove branches that are growing back toward the trunk, and branches that are crossing and rubbing, and might appear to be a problem as the tree matures. One common mistake people make is that they prune off every bud on every branch as high as they can reach. Buds and small twigs and spurs are important. They shade the stems and feed the growing fruit. And without fruiting spurs, you won’t have any fruit. So leave the little branches and sprus alone as they are valuable for the tree and for its appearance.
Apples are one of the most suitable trees for shaping and crown reduction. As with all trees and shrubs that are cut from the “top-down,” however, be warned that formally shaping an apple tree is a high-maintenance procedure that requires skill and experience to pull off correctly. Improperly pruned, you will be left with a topped tree that will quickly (a year or two) turn into a mess that will require restoration pruning in order to resolve. Unless you are an experienced pruner and appreciate high-maintenance, avoid crown reduction and shaping. A shaped apple in the Red Deer area will require annual re-shaping to look its best. In the Calgary area, you could probably get by with 2 or 3 years between prunings.
In a later post, I will thoroughly explain the process of properly shaping an apple or crabapple tree. The photo below shows a crabapple tree that we’ve shaped for four consecutive years. We set the shape the first year, and now, each April, we reshape the tree by removing all of last year’s growth back to the first flower bud or point of origin of the new growth. We also properly thin the crown to avoid congestion and to have a well-balanced, full canopy. There are no indiscriminate cuts. Every cut is made to either a bud or a lateral branch.
(c) 2014 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, AB