There is always something to be done at the orchard, even in the stark winter months. While the trees sleep, orchard workers don't -- it's our job to ensure that the trees stay healthy and as productive as possible.
As the saying goes, there are about a million ways to skin a cat, and the same is true for pruning an apple tree. At our orchard, we use a couple of different techniques to maintain and enhance apple production, like trellising and central-leader pruning.
The main question most people have is "But, why?" Why would you clip potential apple-bearing branches? Why would you lessen the amount of apples that could grow on a tree?
Have you ever had your hair trimmed? When you get the dead-ends cut off, your hair becomes flowy, healthy-looking, even radiant. This is because getting split-ends trimmed off helps eliminate breakage in individual strands. The same is true for a tree. If you help shape the branches as they grow, you help keep the branches of the tree healthy by eliminating the older or disease-ridden branches.
Pruning also helps focus the tree's energy into the branches that remain. This brings on bigger, juicier fruit and keeps the tree's sustenance from becoming spread too thin if it were to produce more fruit than it could sustain.
One of the methods we use at Pome on the Range is pruning using a central leader. This creates a nice Christmas-tree-like dispersal of the branches, producing an attractive tree and effective fruit production.
To help accomplish this, trees that are very young must be pruned when they are planted, leaving one central leader and eliminating other branches. Each layer should have three or four branches that come out from the trunk. These branches shouldn't be right across from each other, which helps light come through the foliage.
As trees age, they need to be pruned. We eliminate the branches that are broken, along with branches that are crossing or rubbing against each other. Removing suckers, or growth from the original root stock, is also important, as they take nutrients from the main part of the tree.
To keep trees from panicking and producing tons of new and unnecessary growth all at once, we prune in the winter. This is when the fruit trees sleep, which keeps their response to the clipping slow and muted.
While we prune, we have to make sure we do so carefully and in limited quantities. Too much pruning shocks the tree's system and makes them panic, sending out all kinds of shoots to make up for the limb that was lost. I imagine that's probably how we'd respond if we found one of our limbs removed -- overcompensation.
The lives of trees are endlessly fascinating. Though growing trees is a great project for your family to embark upon, you have to be prepared to put in the work of upkeep if you want a good crop of apples. Pruning our trees is just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to tree care, but it's worth it when we see happy, healthy trees producing fruit in abundance.