Winter Pruning Apple Trees? Watch This.

Later today, I’ll be helping out with the winter pruning of the veteran, heritage apple trees at Holly Mount Community Orchard in Greenmount, up north of Bury. I’ll be running a tutorial session for any new volunteers, running them through the basics of winter pruning apple trees.

Helping out at a pruning session at Holly Mount community orchard, January 2021

One of the things I’ll be telling the attendees is to regard a lot of the pruning information that you see in modern fruit growing manuals with… caution. The reason being: there’s an awful lot of received wisdom in the current literature; practices that have been handed down since the nineteenth, eighteenth or even seventeenth centuries, without necessarily being checked against the current findings of recent scientific research, and updated accordingly.1This is something I hope to return to in a lot more detail later this year, in a series of articles on the science of fruit tree growth. The work has been done, by academics working in fruit morphology and genetics, but hasn’t always been translated into language that the home orchardist can easily understand and apply. That’s my mission. Wish me luck.

Instead, I’ll be suggesting that they be sure to watch these two videos, by Stefan Sobkowiak, the Permaculture Orchardist. In the first he outlines seven of the most common winter pruning mistakes, and suggests the best ways to avoid them. In the second, he offers one clear point of focus: lowering branch angles to reduce suckering.

Stefan has 30+ years of experience as an apple grower and, based on this and many other videos on his channel, he really knows what he’s talking about. Stefan’s methods are based on the work and tutelage of Jean-Marie Lespinasse – one of the French academics who, since the 1990s, have been researching and updating the science of fruit tree growth and morphology – so the information on his channel has a very sound basis indeed.

This year, before you reach for that pruning manual and start in on your winter pruning, check out the videos above, watch a few more on Stefan’s channel, and arm yourself with the sort of information that will serve you and your trees very well indeed.

Footnotes

  • 1
    This is something I hope to return to in a lot more detail later this year, in a series of articles on the science of fruit tree growth. The work has been done, by academics working in fruit morphology and genetics, but hasn’t always been translated into language that the home orchardist can easily understand and apply. That’s my mission. Wish me luck.

10 comments

  1. Do you have tutorials on pruning / caring for peach trees
    Good info on apple trees. I stopped planting apple trees because they always blow over. I live in Eastern NC

    1. Hi Ambrose – I’m sorry, but I’m not really the man to ask about peach trees, as I’ve not had the chance to work with them just yet.

      The general gist as I understand it is that they fruit on one-year-old wood, and so the key to pruning is to remove older limbs when you’ve got a one-year-old stem growing in the same part of the tree to replace them. So it’s a cycle of regenerative removal of the older wood, rather than trying to establish fruiting spurs on older branches.

      But do see if you can get hold of a few peach-growing texts and double-check that before you start lopping branches off your tree!

  2. Interesting video! It looks like he has trees on fairly vigorous rootstocks (which I think is common in North America?). Most apple trees sold in the UK are on somewhat dwarfing rootstocks. Perhaps the pruning techniques in “the books” are more applicable to the dwarfing rootstocks, where there is a danger of the tree “runting-out” unless plenty of heading cuts are made? Whereas the techniques in the video are applicable to vigorous trees, where there are different challenges?

    (I know that M26 and MM106 are “semi-dwarfing”, but if grown in less-than-ideal conditions, they will be more dwarfed. I have a tree on M26 that seems to be runting out).

    1. Hi Stephen – interesting thought! I’m not sure what rootstocks Stefan’s trees are on, I have to admit I’ve only watched a few of his videos so far, so I haven’t heard him talk about rootstocks yet. But I don’t think the trees he’s got are massively vigorous – I’ve seen and worked with similar-sized trees in the past few years that are only on on MM106.

      I’ve not heard the term ‘runting out’ before, but I’m assuming that’s applied to a tree that stays small and doesn’t grow to what the orchardist considers its full potential? In which case it certainly would be interesting to try to work out how much of that is down to the pruning regime and how much to other factors, such as localised soil conditions, pest & disease, poor root structure due to the rootstock tree itself simply being a weak specimen, etc. I’m not sure how to go about assessing that sort of thing in order to isolate a single variable or limiting factor, to be honest.

      I think the main message I took from Stefan’s video was that perhaps we need to set aside our notions of control and influence, in favour of allowing the tree to grow and develop as its genes and the conditions dictate, and only intervening when there’s a major problem that we can definitely help with. Although that’s not always wholly feasible, as other factors – aesthetic requirement, public health and safety, etc. – may dictate intervention above and beyond the minimalist level.

      It’s a rather fascinating subject, all told, isn’t it?

      1. Yes very interesting indeed!

        I understand that MM111 is widely used in North America. In forums I also read of people using even more vigorous rootstocks, like Antonovka or B118. I think the higher sunshine levels (in most states) might tend to also increase vigour, compared to the UK.

        All else being equal, I think Stefan’s methods (thinning cuts only, not too many, encourage early fruiting), will tend to give smaller trees than the methods in most UK gardening books.

        It’s interesting to compare the pros and cons of different rootstocks vs different pruning regimes. e.g. a more vigorous rootstock, pruned in a way which does not encourage vigour, would probably be more robust than a dwarfing rootstock, pruned to encourage vigour.

        The tree on M26 which I mentioned has been in about 3 years, is producing lots of blossom, but very little growth. Each year I have cut back new growth by half, but that’s not much! I think the issue is root competition from a nearby hedge. The sensible thing to do would be to cut back really hard to stimulate growth. (Or move it somewhere else!).

        It’s also interesting to compare to commercial orchards. At least from a quick glance, the commercial orchards I have seen in Herefordshire (presumably for cider) resemble the centre leader trees shown around 13:00 in the video, whereas the orchards I have been past in Kent (presumably for eating) are all vertical cordons, single or double.

        1. Hi Stephen –

          Very good point about the different growing conditions over in the US. It’s easy to forget that it’s such a vast nation there’s often so much more room for orchards, and for trees to grow into within them.

          I’d suggest that if your M26 tree isn’t growing as strongly as you’d like then you should definitely look to the roots rather than the branches. Competition from that hedge could be retarding its growth, but a key question is: does it have a clear, well-mulched tree circle around the base, as wide as the canopy? If not, then anything in that zone – grass, weeds, etc – will be diverting resources from the feeder roots. The fact that it’s blossoming really well could also be a sign of stress. Plants that are in trouble will often attempt to set as much seed as they can as quickly as possible. This will in turn eat into the tree’s available energy production and slow vegetative growth.

          Rather than hard pruning – I realise a lot of the books say “prune hard to encourage growth”, but I suspect that’s mostly received wisdom that isn’t really an accurate reflection of fruit tree morphology – try clearing that tree circle and giving it a really good drink, followed by a thick mulch of composted bark. Maybe even some organic fertiliser, to give it a boost.

          Or, yes, relocate it away from the hedge to somewhere where its roots won’t be as strongly out-competed. Although of course that could knock it back a year or two whilst it re-establishes its root network.

          I don’t have any commercial growing experience myself – someone Paula Fleming (@PaulaFl3m1ng on Twitter) at Le Manoir would be much better placed to comment on that aspect of fruit production – but as I understand it, one of the main drivers of the difference in cider and dessert tree shaping is the different harvesting methods. Dessert apples need to be hand-picked and carefully packed to avoid bruising or they’ll be rejected by supermarkets, hence the cordon-like “spindle” shape, to allow easy access for pickers. Cider apples tend to be shaken down and vacuumed up before going for sorting and crushing, so the trees can be a bit less rigidly controlled, more naturally inclined.

          Anyhow, very best of luck with that tree. I hope it has a good year this year and develops well.

    1. Hi Bert – Yes, Steven’s videos are always worth watching as well. And I’m very tempted to try to get hold of some scions of a few of his red-fleshed varieties, but I’d need to look into the relevant import/export regulations before I bought any. One for another year, I think.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.