Radical Apple Pruning


We have a giant apple tree that has been butchered in the past, then ignored, the butchered again, by the city tree trimming crew. It is probably about 50 years old, and most of the apples are developing way up high, because the major branches go up high, then bend over…after researching a lot, hemming and hawing and reading, online and in books, I have decided to renovate it. Slowly, over a few years, I’ll take off major limbs and train young branches to be the new major limbs, at a more convenient height. Convenient for me, not the squirrels.

Let me tell you about apical dominance… there is a chemical in plants that causes the  buds on the end of every branch to be dominant- it turns off the other buds back down the line. This chemical, auxin, is affected by gravity. If the end bud on a branch droops down, there aren’t many buds that will be activated. There will be buds on the tree up high, before the branch starts to droop. So we have very few apples down where we can reach them, and a bunch up high, which then fall down to be half-eaten by squirrels.


Another thing about apical dominance is that when the end bud is cut off,  other bud back down the line are activated. This is good when your pinch back flower chrysanthemums to make the plant bushier, so you get more flowers in fall, but not so good when the city crew whacks back your apple tree on a semiannual basis.

Since it is a standard tree, not a dwarf, it is really big. Branches are growing up into the power lines, and the city crews want to prevent that, but they don’t care much about the tree other than that. Every time the city comes to prune, they take out the center aggressively, which causes it to grow back aggressively. It’s pretty bad. There are seven major limbs, up to about 6 inches in diameter at the trunk, and they have kind of an umbrella effect, going up, then curving way down.
I have thought about it a lot, planning, and checking, and finally decided to take off one of the seven major limbs. Next year, I will take out another, never removing more than 25% of the leaf area at a time. Hopefully this will prevent major regrowth of water sprouts. I wanted to clean up the south side of the tree, since that is where I have recently sited a veggie bed and I wanted it to have more direct sun.

So, I chose my first limb, sawed it, then spent some quality time wondering how to get it down without seriously hurting myself. Seriously. It was tangled in so many other branches that even when it was cut all the way through, it just sat there.  I moved the ladder and made some more judicious cuts, then spent a pleasant afternoon cutting it into reasonable lengths for our chimenea.  Next year, I’ll select another limb from the North side of the tree, and work on that one.

The most helpful book for me in this project, which has mostly been a project about thinking, is Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning. Tons of illustrations, tons of examples, written by a woman on a mission.


Shows how much you know, it’s only mostly dead!

it's alive!

A Northstar sour cherry tree was one of the first things I planted when we moved to this house, 11 years ago. It is what enabled me to call the mini fenced off garden area “the orchard” which I think still makes people wonder about me- um, rampant raspberries, a horizontal apple tree, some wayward herbs and a dead cherry tree? That’s an orchard?
Ha! The cherrry tree isn’t dead, I found out today- it actually has one major branch that is still alive, with buds breaking out and everything. The sprinkler is on it now, and it will get a scoop of compost, and as soon as everything that is going to leaf out does, I will go in with a pruning saw and take out dead wood. The major branch that is still alive will make a new leader, and we’ll see how well it does.

My hope is that the root system is still healthy enough that the one living limb can become the new leader.  I am guessing that lack of moisture is the problem with this tree.   The herbs and strawberries that are the understory of the orchard thrive without supplemental irrigation. What the lemon balm, chives and spring bulbs need, in terms of water, is much less than what the cherry needs. I need to solve that problem this summer. I have been building the soil with mulch and compost, and I’ll continue to do that. This could be a case of the tree solving its own problem- not enough water for a mid sized tree? Okay, kill off some branches, here’s enough water for a tiny tree.

I will ahve to decide, at some point, when to cut my losses, take out the tree and replace it- what do you think? One more year?