The rewards of good pruning are immense; there are few locally grown foods with more lore, and more taste, than a good apple. I began my quest to raise apples with a few varieties purchased from Albemarle Cider Works south of Charlottesville; we planted three trees in a fenced area near three very neglected older trees, intending to bring them all into production. Earlier we'd put two more in a very wild location, a seldom-visited meadow in Buckingham County, where I once saw a mama bear and her three cubs dining on the fruit from a pear tree. At least we'd feed the bears there.
Over the past few years I have attended two pruning workshops. I've learned that must be patient with apple trees, and some pruning must be done annually and carefully. In time apples can be harvested every year, even with the organic methods I currently use. I may eventually resort to one spraying of the fungicide Captan, after bloom and pollen-collection, each year. Otherwise I will just fertilize and maintain the trees. Our climate in Central VA is changing, whatever some politicians ignorantly claim, in ways that may not permit apple-growing in a decade or so. In the mean time, I'll see what happens.
This time of year, the earliest part of Spring, is best for pruning. Much of what I learned about pruning can be found here, but here are a few other things I have discovered.
1) Pruning really does help with blight. Our older trees were full of "Shepherd's Crooks" and blackened foliage, indicating Fire Blight. It's hard to eradicate with organic methods, but not impossible.
Last year I pruned all three trees heavily and cleaned up all the debris, then put it in the landfill in a plastic bag. I was told by an orchard manager that burning the trimmings can just make blight-spores go airborne again! Tools have to be clean, so I reach for rubbing alcohol and wipe the blades of pruners and pruning saw frequently, or I make a 1/9 solution of bleach and water and dip the tools frequently in a bucket.
2) Do not fertilize too much. Pruning makes one want to put down fruit-tree fertilizer, but that can be counterproductive. My reading indicates that fertilizing after heavy pruning will produce water-sprouts and lots of foliage growth; such young growth is susceptible to Fire Blight, one of the factors that led me to prune in the first place. Also lots of new leaves in the wrong places block sunlight and air from getting into the center of the tree, something essential for good health.
3) Could a little kid climb your tree? The answer should be "yes." I loved that bit of advice from our extension agent. Here the goal is to make a tree with an open center and not too many branches.
I aim to create a "vase shape" such as in this illustration from Stark Brothers.
While my trees did not get as severe a pruning as shown on the left, I did cut them hard again this year. This close-up shows how crossed and cluttered the branches were on a five-year-old tree we planted in Buckingham County and have only pruned one time before:
After pruning this tree, it's probably too long at the ends, but now the tree has room for air circulation and light. Next year I'll step back the main branches to keep them from getting too long; long thin branches often break under the weight of fruit.
In my case, I am certain not all of my cuts are right, especially high in the trees where I cannot get a close look at the buds. There I use a pole pruner. Where it is safe to climb a pruned tree, I will step up to the first branching of major limbs and inspect, or lean a small ladder against a tree. Mostly I use my Felco #2 pruners or a set of bypass loppers, keeping them sharp always with a few passes from a Bergamo sharpening stone I found at One Scythe Revolution.