How to prune apples.

I read a blog the other day entitled ‘How to grow Alstroemeria’ which started with an apology for its pretentious title, used because confident titles attract search engine attention.
I imagine there is a lot more written about pruning apples than growing Alstroemerias, so confident or not, I’m not expecting the world to sit up and take notice of what I have to say on the subject, which is maybe just as well.

I have three apple trees in a garden which is fairly full. I am the sort of person who tuts at the sort of people who clip every bush in their garden into a round lump because they can’t bear the idea of them growing out of control. My rather pompous take is that you shouldn’t plant things that are going to massively outgrow their allotted space in the first place. I then follow that up by planting Camellias, magnolias and much else, including Apples and a plum, that are all capable of growing very large, then trying to keep them in check by pruning. At least I don’t clip them into identical neat domes.

I want to fit a quart into a pint pot. I had Apple ‘Suntan’ until recently but got rid of it because it didn’t crop well for lack of a pollinator. It did however flower well, and it did so in spite of being maintained at much the same size over several years by pruning. I summer pruned it, using the technique described on the RHS website for trained trees such as cordons and espaliers. If you go to a garden such as West Dean in Sussex you will see apples trained into all sorts of beautiful designs and maintained using the same pruning method. For all that the RHS say that standard and bush trees are managed with winter pruning, I see no reason for summer pruning not to work.

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Before

Basically the pruning method is to remove most of the new growth in or soon after the third week of August, later in the north or if there is a tendency for the tree to make secondary growth. The shoots are pruned to between one and three leaves above the basal cluster of leaves. The reasoning is that by removing a substantial amount of foliage, the vigour of the tree is reduced and it will tend to produce fruit buds rather than growth.

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After

The climate of Cornwall tends to favour growth more than fruit bud production so summer pruning is probably to be preferred over winter pruning, whatever the method followed. Certainly winter pruning of the severity that I need to keep my trees at the size I want is likely to result in a lot of growth and very little fruit.

With my Suntan tree, secondary growth, where the pruned shoots started to grow again before the winter, was a bit of a problem, hence my postponing pruning until the 23rd August, into the fourth week of the month. I’ve also not pruned as hard as suggested, leaving three to five leaves above the basal cluster on most shoots. I will cut them back a little more later on, when the risk of secondary growth is minimal.

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Shoots cut to 4-5 buds above basal cluster.

Complicating things a little is the fact that my tree started out as ‘Elstar’ but because that proved to be pretty useless, I have grafted various other things onto it and removed most of the original variety. It now carries branches of ‘Holstein’, ‘Meridian’, ‘Red Windsor’, Plympton Pippin’ and ‘Tregonna King’. All of these will have different patterns of growth and may eventually need to be pruned differently. ‘Holstein’ for example, is inclined to be almost weeping and as a consequence its vigour is reduced. Time will tell. The second batch of grafts were done relatively recently and are still in the formative pruning stage, meaning that I will winter prune them to create the structure I need for at least one more year, then revert to summer pruning them too.

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‘Holstein’ growing horizontally and cropping well.

This is season two of applying this pruning method and I have a good crop of apples this year. I am reasonably confident of the effectiveness of my method, just not confident enough for the title of this piece to be justified.

Incidentally, to repeat something I have said before, grafting shoots of different varieties onto an established apple tree is not difficult and the chances of success are high. You can create your own family tree with the varieties you want and get good pollination with just a single tree, apple varieties not generally being self fertile.

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Grafts made in February 2017. They grew 12″-18″ in 2017, were shortened by half last winter and have grown 18″-24″ this year, with some fruit spurs to give me fruit next year. I will shorten them this winter to encourage more branching.

10 thoughts on “How to prune apples.

    1. My main thought on your unruly Jasmine is that I’d really rather you hadn’t asked! There isn’t a great deal you can do to limit their size without them responding by growing twice as fast and hardly flowering at all. You really need enough space for it to develop fairly much unimpeded for them to perform well. I’m sure I’ve seen Jasminum polyanthum outdoors in Cornwall now and then. That’s a somewhat less vigorous species, usually grown as a houseplant. You’d probably need a south facing wall but it could be worth a try.

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  1. I really like that idea of grafting as a means of ensuring cross-pollination without planting additional trees. That’s a great idea for small urban gardens like mine (not that I know how to graft, but. . .) Thanks!

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    1. I used a simple splice graft in February or thereabouts. Tied with polythene tape (or insulating tape) fairly tightly you shouldn’t need wax. You just need to practice so you can get matching cuts on stock and scion in one take. There’ll be Youtube videos. Or you could chip bud around now. I taught myself that from a method sheet and it worked first time, to my complete amazement.

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  2. Great article Jim. I always wanted to create my own tree. Do you know if we can graft any variety to any tree? I have an old ‘Boscop’ and I intend to graft ‘Cox Orange’ and ‘Reine des reinettes’ on it.
    I already tried chip bud graft on lemon trees with success. (Rather in summer )
    Do you think splice grafts are easier ? What stem diameter do you choose for the rootstock and graft?

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    1. As far as I know you can graft any apple onto any other. You would be using one year old shoots which are around 7 or 8mm diameter, perhaps less in some varieties. It is best if stock and scion are the same diameter; if not, align the cambium down one side only or graft onto the side of the stock having cut only deep enough to get a graft surface to match the scion. Splice grafts and chip buds are of similar difficulty. Both require a flat face on both surfaces that will make good contact with no air spaces. That takes a very sharp knife and a cut made in a single motion. Then you have to keep water out until it calluses up.

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