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Recent entries

Kevin Hahn

Food Plotting

Time to Prune Fruit Trees

Sat, March 16, 2013

In my earlier blog about planting fruit trees for food plots, Orchards - Catering a Deer’s Sweet Tooth  I indicated that if you plan to put in and apple and pear orchard food plot, you would need to prune the trees to maintain the longevity and productivity of the trees. I have an orchard that is already established, so with Friday’s near 60 degree temperatures, I headed to the farm to do my annual pruning of what is now my 3 year old apple and pear orchard.

When to Prune
I had a professor in college years ago tell me that there are only 52 days in the year (Sundays) that fruit trees should not be pruned.  What he was suggesting is that fruit trees could be pruned any time of the year and it didn’t really matter.  Well, I later learned that this advice was not correct and actually the best time of the year to prune fruit trees is in late winter through early spring when trees are still dormant.  Pruning at this time of the year will put the least amount of stress on young trees and it’s easier to see what you doing since there are no leaves to block your view.  Removal of “dormant branches” stimulates the rapid and robust growth of the remaining desirable branches, which is very important for young trees once temperatures warm and dormancy breaks. Waiting to prune after dormancy break will not yield these results.

Importance of Pruning
The biggest mistake that can be made when it comes to pruning fruit trees is to not prune them.  I sense that most people do not prune fruit trees because they are not sure how to do it, think they might ruin the tree, or simply don’t understand that “not pruning” is actually harmful to the tree.  Pruning apple trees especially during the first 5 years after planting is critical to establish the correct architecture of the tree and will proactively prevent many future problems.  Without the correct architecture of the tree, the trees will not be as productive, tend to have branches that break or split the main trunk, and have more disease and insect pressure which eventually affects the longevity of the tree.  So, don’t be afraid to prune your apple trees for failing to prune will inflect far more damage to the tree in the long run.

Pruning fruit trees is not difficult.  I am by no means an expert at pruning fruit trees, however, I do have a bucket full of tricks that I utilize and as result I can arguably do a decent job at pruning trees.  I will share these “tricks” with you, but first it is important to envision what the apple or pear tree should look like in 5 + years after pruning.

Central leader system of pruning for apple and pear trees.
For apple and pear trees, I primarily use the central leader system of pruning. The central leader system is a process of shaping a tree to a pyramid shape which has a central leader (main trunk) with layers branches radiating off the central leader at about every 18 – 24 inches in vertical distance.  These layers of radiating branches are called scaffolds.  With this system, pruning is done to encourage the growth of tree branches outward from the central leader to allow fruiting branches to intercept the most sunlight.  Below are examples of tree architecture with the central leader system of pruning.

Diagrams showing the basic shape of trees pruned using the central leader system (source:internet image).
food plot orchard pruning

FruitTree showing the central leader shape.
food plot orchard pruning

Before you start pruning, keep in mind the goals are to:
• Create layers of scaffold branches at about every 18 – 24 inches as along the central leader(trunk).
• Encourage outward growth of these branches (away from the trunk).

Central leader system – 8 pruning steps
When I prune young apple and pear trees, I use a 8 step process (my bucket of tricks) which helps me to take the guess work out of which branches need to be removed and allows me to prune a tree very quickly as I am not taking a lot of time to contemplate my next cut. These steps also allow me to prune with confidence as I know if I follow them, I am making the right pruning cuts. 

Step 1: Remove all the suckers coming off the base of the tree.
Most apple trees are grafted to a different root stock unless they are grown from seed. Often the root stock of grafted trees will produce above ground shoots which will turn into trees which are genetically the same as the root stock and not the original grafted tree.  Thus the suckers must be removed.

Cutting back suckers which originate from the grafted root stock (source: internet image)
food plots orchard pruning

Step 2.  Remove all low branches which form below the bottom set of scaffold branches.

Step 3.  Look for all damaged or dead branches and remove them.
Also remove any branches that have grown together which will cause rub wounds.  These wounds can harbor disease on insects.

pruning fruit trees food plots

Step 4. Remove all straight vertical or near vertical growing branches that originate from the scaffold branches.
These branches are often referred to as water sprouts, are rapid growing, and typically will never produce fruit. Also remove any branches that are growing back toward the center of the tree to maintain the growth of the tree outward so the center of the tree does not become cluttered with branches running every which way.  Any branches that are point downward should be removed as well.

Apple tree with branches growing vertically from the scaffold branches, and branches growing toward the center of the tree.  Red lines indicate branches that should be removed.

Step 5.  Remove all narrow angle (less than 45 degrees) scaffold branches coming off the central leader.
Keep in mind that scaffold branches will bear the weight of fruit and crotch angles of less than 45 degree will be weak and thus will often split the main trunk of the tree with a heavy fruit load.  Also remove all competing branches with the central leader so that there is only one central leader.  Competing branches with central leader grow vertically off the true central leader and usually have a narrow crotch angle as well.

Step 6.  Maintain a distance between scaffold groups of about 18-24 inches by removing any new branches developing off the central leader between them.
Also at this time, maintain the number of scaffold branches to 3 - 4 branches at each location along the central leader by pruning out new forming branches.

Step 7.  Look to the future and develop the upper most set of scaffold branches. 
Select a set of radiating branches about 18-24 inches above the previous set of scaffold branches and prune to keep only 3- 4 branches that radiate equally around the central leader to maintain balance.  Keep only those branches that do not have narrow crotch angles.

Step 8.  Lastly make heading cuts on the remaining (desirable) scaffold branches to further encourage outward growth so branches don’t compete with each other for sun light.
Choosing the correct bud to prune above determines the direction of new growth of that branch.

Final Comments
These are some basics for pruning the central leader system method for fruit trees up to about 5 years old.  As the trees grow in height, I often start removing the some of the lower scaffold branches to raise the canopy height to allow ease of access in the the orchard with equipment and to reduce deer browse.  Also, I will often clip the central leader out at the top to prevent the apple tree from getting too tall and to make access more easy.  There is more information available on the web about pruning fruit trees of all ages and there are also some informative videos.  Just Google- pruning fruit trees.



How bout Cherry trees Kevin? I have a Bing that is 3 years old and a Black Tartarian that is they dont put out fruit. Do i need to cut them back?

Posted by coinman66 on March 16

Coinman…Cherry trees, like apple and pears, are typically pruned using the central leader system as I have described in this article.  Given that your trees are only 3 years old, I would prune to focus on the tree shape with scaffold branches radiating around the central leader similar to apples and pears

Posted by Cooper on March 16

I’m love’n your food plotting articles.  Keep up the good work!  I don’t have any apple trees where I hunt, but I am planting some crab apple seedlings this spring.  They’re 2yo wild crab apple seedlings.  How well do deer like crab apples compared to regular apples that we eat?  In time, will my crabs need to be pruned the same way an regular apple tree should be pruned. 

Posted by EC_JEFF@WORK on March 17

EC_Jeff….Crabapples can range from edible to ornamental landscape type crabs.  Typically the ornamental crabs have smaller fruits ( big marble size) and they are very bitter—I have ornamental crabs in my yard and I have never seen the birds or the deer eat the fruits from these trees.  Edible crabapples are also referred to as wild apples and tend to have fruits less than 2 inches in diameter (golf ball size). The fruit of edible crabs tend to be tart, but not bitter like ornamental crabs, and are very desirable by wildlife, including deer.  I planted Dolgo and Transcendant edible crabs in my food plot orchard 3 years ago.  I planted them as 2 year old whips and they have needed much pruning the past three years as they tend to produce many branches off the central leader from ground level up.  I have been trying to develop spaced scaffolding branches with the first scaffolds at 3 ft from the ground as I do with my regular apples.  As the crabapples get larger, they will tend to have a natural spreading growth habit and then require less pruning.  So in the early years, I would do pruning to encourage outward growth and remove in internal branches that tend to clutter the center of the tree.  Good luck!

Posted by Cooper on March 17

Great article!  Any advice on pruning old trees?  We have a few 40+ year old apple trees on my farm have probably never been trimmed and just don’t produce many apples.  Last year we bought a house with 5 apple trees that had never been trimmed in their 20-30 years though I was told they used to produce a lot of apples.  Last winter we trimmed about 1/2 of the wood off of these trees to get rid of all the high growth that would shade the lower branches and that we could never reach to harvest. With all the verticle growth and shading, there really weren’t many branches to get em back to a “central leader” profile.  Between the trimming and the drought, we got one apple last fall but I’m just glad they didn’t die from the drought and trimming stress. A couple weeks ago I trimmed them again by cutting off all of the water sprouts, inward growths, and a couple unhealthy branches I didn’t have the guts to take off last year. Any advice on how I can help these trees recover and how I can do a better job on the trees at our farm would be great.  Thanks!

Posted by RdnkScientist on March 18

Rdnkscientist.  Most old unpruned apple trees can be revived provided the trunk and main branches are healthy. Sometimes you get into them and discover there is a lot of damage/rot and it maybe best to just cut those down and plant a new tree.  But assuming that your trees are not in bad shape, then there is a good chance to revive the trees with some aggressive pruning.  It may take a few years to get back to good fruit production but it can be done.  Unpruned old trees typically bear fruit in the tops of the trees only due to shading of the lower branches by the upper canopy and the mass of center branches.  So I would prune to a practical height and then open up the center of the tree to let light reach the lower branches. You will most likely end up with and open-center architecture which will be ok. From that point, prune to encourage the open center and outward growth of the tree—Be patient it may take 2-3 years.  I would Google “pruning old apple trees” or “restoring old apple trees” and check out the videos to get some visual ideas.  Sounds like you will have a lot of apple wood for the smoker.

Posted by Cooper on March 18

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