Question about pruning trees

Asked March 19, 2016, 4:29 AM EDT

I had made contact with someone named "Brian" who never got back to me - I emailed him twice. However, my question remains. This pink lady apple tree is about 6 years old. I have be studying books about pruning, but it also helps if you have someone to ask. I did spread the branches as you can see, and the tree has developed nicely thus far. My first problem is that the tree seems only to want to send up long branches that go straight up. I could cut them all to an outward facing bud, to try to get them to branch. Perhaps this is just how this tree develops, but I did want to ask. I should also mention, we have a lot of deer in this area, and so I have to keep a fence around the tree or the deer will "ring" the bark, and kill the tree, like they have with at least three others. This first picture is the whole tree, before pruning. As the weather is warming, and I waited from Feb. 15 to March 15 to hear back, I did go ahead and do some pruning. I cut back to a lower branch, keeping apical dominance in mind, but often as you can see hopefully, there was just a long, straight branch. I did cut some of the longest ones back by a third. Another question I had involved the central leader. Unfortunately, there is a bit of disease right there, though the rest of the tree seems healthy. I have selected another branch to be the highest, but I wanted guidance on the central leader - the second photo. My plan on the diseased branch here was to cut back to the branch coming out to the left, but if you think the second mark is more disease, I will have to cut back to the second branch down on the right, I think - is this correct? As you can see, the rest of the tree looks healthy. I do the dormant oil spray and I fertilize as well. My third question, and third photo, involves some of the thicker, straight branches. I wonder if you can identify them as watersprouts, or are they just branches? I did trim a few of them, but left some as well. The materials available online and in the books I have often conflict. I have had several younger trees, and I believe the information I have on pruning them is fine. However, (due to the fence this time) this is the first time I have a fruit tree approaching maturity that has a chance, and I think I am at the exact point where I could either make it a wonderful, fruiting tree, or ruin it. I really, really appreciate your help. Living near Pittsburgh, in Plum Borough, I really know no one to ask, and the few of us who still have larger parcels of land are in the minority now. So, thank you so much for taking your time to save this tree (from me!). I do plan to plant more fruit trees this year, as the fence did save it from the deer, and I will be using your guidance when those trees mature, as well. Finally, in general, if you see any mistakes I am making, please let me know! Thanks again. Bridgit Kalmeyer

Allegheny County Pennsylvania

4 Responses

I am not sure who you had reached out to before, but I will try to help you. However, I am not an expert on pruning fruit trees. :-) I have reached out to a colleague for assistance. I think the disease issue is fire blight, and you do have to prune below the canker areas. I also think you have a number of water sprouts, though not sure why. I will get back to you as soon as I hear from her.

Bridgit, I'm the Penn State Extension Tree Fruit Educator Tim reached out to. I agree with your and his assessment to cut below the diseased wood. Also, completely remove the upright water sprouts. There is a lot of wood in the tree that will start bearing fruit. Keep up your studies on tree fruit production! We have excellent resources at the Penn State Extension Tree Fruit Production website.

Dear Tara,
Thank you for your reply. I did cut below the diseased wood I could identify. On that subject, there are two possible places that may also be diseased. One is on a major lateral branch, and one is very low on the trunk. I will wait and see what develops in those places; cutting the trunk would destroy the tree. I wonder if there is a spray I could put on to cure it. We do generally spray the tree, but it obviously did not stop what may be a disease starting. Our main problem here is indeed fungus. My grapes turn into mummies and fall off, I lost an apple and two plum trees to fungus. We spray once a week, but it never seems to help.

My second question is about the growth habit of the branches. I have included a photo of one main lateral. You can see from that picture how all the branches just want to grow straight up, and grow long without branching. Should I cut these back so they grow side branches? I know heading cuts are often frowned upon, but, there are not other branches to cut back to, so thinning is not really an option on a straight, too-long branch. So, should I head the branches back to get them to - branch? Or, is this just the way this type of tree grows, and I should leave it alone?
Finally, I note some growth is lighter in color than others. I know this is new growth. I have included pictures with arrows, wondering if those were watersprouts, though it may be impossible to tell from that.. They are nice and strong, so I think they are branches, but again, they are very straight like many of the branches.
There are plenty of materials out there that instruct on pruning trees through three years old. However, learning to prune a mature tree is much more of a challenge, and there is less clearly written about doing that. I think I have made most of the mistakes that are possible to make with trees. I have and add to that stores selling me trees that were dead and peach trees that were not at all the variety they claimed they were (clingstone and not freestone). I am very close to knowing what to do, but I would hate to have to start one more time with this apple tree, just because I was not sure what to do. Thank for your input!

Bridgit Kalmeyer

You're doing a great job, so just keep learning all you can! A rule of thumb is to remove anything any shoots off of a limb that are too upright or more than 2/3s the diameter of the limb, so remove the shoots with the red arrows. We have an excellent video that discusses pruning of older trees:

Also, to get better quality trees, order on-line from a nursery that specializes in growing fruit trees.