University of Illinois Extension
Bruce Spangeberg

These articles are written to apply to the northeastern corner of Illinois. Problems and timing may not apply outside of this area.

Stateline Yard & Garden

Start Thinking Early Spring Apple Pruning

February 3, 2000

The arrival of February means we are moving into the late winter to very early spring phase on the gardening calendar. One of the first outdoor activities of this season is pruning apple trees. Remember that pruning is very important to assure success when growing apples.

Why is pruning important? For starters, trees pruned on a regular basis have improved fruit quality and size, and also will be stronger to better support that load of fruit. Pruned trees are easier to work with since size and shape of the tree is kept in check. Finally, apple trees pruned on a regular basis are less likely to have as many pest problems as neglected trees.
Prune only enough to properly train the tree in the first five years. Prune older trees more heavily to keep them productive. Apple tree dormant pruning can start this month and should be completed by early April.

Begin the process by having the proper pruning tools. Hand pruners work fine for cutting small twigs. Loppers are suggested for larger twigs the hand pruners cannot handle. Finally, a good sharp saw is needed for removing limbs or portions of limbs.

While it is difficult to suggest the exact way to prune each individual tree, there are some
general rules to follow. Keep in mind branches need to have some horizontal orientation to produce fruit spurs. Vertical growth rarely produces much fruit. Also, try to remove some branches growing into the prevailing summer winds to increase air circulation through apple trees, which can help reduce disease problems.

As you work on a tree, remove all damaged and diseased branches. When branches are growing into each other, choose the branch that contributes best to the overall growth of the tree and remove the other. Also cut out watersprouts, which are rapidly growing upright branches that tend to clog up the center of the tree. Suckers arising from the base of the trunk also need to be removed.

Oftentimes gardeners may be somewhat reluctant to start cutting away at apples trees. Carefully look over each tree and make an analysis of what needs to be removed. Start by pruning those branches that stand out as needing to be removed. Then consider what cuts may enhance the remainder of the growth on the tree.


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