Henry Homeyer: delicate but necessary art of pruning

By Henry Homeyer
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I love to prune. To me, it’s a way of creating sculpture – a tree, well pruned, is a thing of beauty. I recently taught a homeowner how to prune his apple tree. It’s easy enough to do if you have the proper tools and understand the principles.

First, I explained, every leaf needs to get sunshine in order to produce the food for making fruits and for feeding roots and new branches. Clutter is bad. I like to say a bird should be able to fly through a well pruned apples tree without getting hurt. An open, airy tree will also be less prone to getting fungal diseases like apple scab.

We began by walking around the tree and studying it carefully, checking if there any dead or broken branches we needed to remove. It was a healthy 15-year old Macintosh, and had no deadwood. But the deer had done some pruning of the lower branches, so we cleaned up any stubs they left, cutting them back to their originating branches.

Branch collar is left in place when pruning off branch.

Next we looked at the lower branches to see if any branches impeded lawn mowing, as is often the case. There were two branches that qualified for removal. The first was 4 inches in diameter at the trunk, so we removed it with 3 cuts: First, a foot from the trunk I made an undercut that would prevent ripping bark to reach the trunk. Then 18 inches from the trunk I made a cut to sever the branch and take off the weight. That also helps to reduce chances of the bark ripping. Finally, I carefully cut off the stub at the branch collar.

The branch collar is the wrinkled, swollen part of a branch near the trunk (or a large branch) where the branch is attached. That is where healing occurs, so it’s important not to remove it by cutting flush with the trunk.

The shape of an apple tree can vary a lot, depending on how it has been managed. The tallest branch produces plant hormones called auxins that control growth and fruiting. Generally a tree should have one tall branch which is called the central leader, and competing branches should be cut back to a fork or side shoot. The tree we worked on had lots of competing branches, and we cut them back considerably to reduce competition.

It’s best if most of the fruit producing branches are easily reached from the ground or from a short stepladder. Blossoms and fruit are produced on short twigs called fruit spurs. These spurs develop on mature branches that are not vertical. Vertical shoots, called water sprouts, don’t generally grow fruit and can be removed to reduce clutter. A branch at a 45 degree angle to the trunk will produce lots of fruit.

A fruit spur.

A bud will produce 3 to 5 blossoms and some leaves. Later, when apples are the size of cherries, you should hand pick many of those little fruits so each spur has just one apple. That will produce big fruits instead of tiny ones. Conventional orchards thin the fruit with chemical sprays.

I like to remove any extraneous large branches first. If a water sprout got away and is now 3 to 4 inches in diameter, shooting up through the middle of the tree, I remove it as one of my first cuts.

In the past, orchardists took up to one third of the branches of a tree in a single year. Now that estimate is smaller, say 20-25% in any given year. I keep the branches in a pile so that I can compare what we removed to what is still there.

You won’t kill a tree by taking off too much, but it can stimulate new growth in order to have enough leaves to feed the roots. Some varieties are more likely to produce lots of water sprouts than others.

When two branches are competing for the same sunshine, it is best to remove one of them. I look to see which has more fruit buds, and generally keep that one. Another question you can ask yourself is, “What will this branch look like in 5 or 10 years?” If it is growing toward another branch, it is good to remove it.

Cut off branches damaged by deer.

I look for branches that are crossing or rubbing and remove one of them. I remove branches growing in towards the center of the tree. The tree we pruned was near the driveway, so any low branches growing into the driveway were removed, and even branches that might miss a car but hit a delivery truck.

Tools are important, too. I use sharp bypass pruners for smaller branches. These act like scissors. Don’t buy the cheapest pruners you can, get good ones and a holster so you don’t lose them or get them wet and dirty. I wear mine on my hip like a cowboy.

I like loppers for cuts up to and inch and a half in diameter. I prefer geared loppers for better mechanical advantage and easier cutting. I use Fiskars brand geared loppers with 24 inch handles. A good pole pruner can be helpful for tall trees. And I have saws of various sizes for bigger branches.

So prune, and don’t worry if you have an oops moment! Trees are resilient and will grow back a branch to replace the one you took off, but wish you hadn’t.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeHenry Homeyer's Notes from the Garden

About the Author: Henry Homeyer is a lifetime organic gardener living in Cornish Flat, N.H. He is the author of four gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. You may reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by snail mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish an answer to a question by mail.

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