Birth Of An Orchard
Part 5
2nd Year Pruning

Dateline: 3 May 2015

Back in 2013, in Birth of an Orchard, Part 1, I told of my dream to have a small orchard of standard-size apple trees. In Part 2 I showed the land and the process of planting the trees. In Part 3 and Part 4 I wrote about neglect and the struggle to find time to properly tend to my orchard, with the time demands of my Planet Whizbang business. 

Yesterday I spent most of the day in my neglected orchard, with the intention of pruning the now-two-year-old trees. The picture above shows one of my trees. Despite my neglect, the trees have done remarkably well. That is a healthy, vigorous tree. It has come a long way from the single, slender, 30" tall whip I planted.

Earlier in this year I blogged about the deer population that suffered from a hard winter. The deer were starving. They were out in the daytime looking for anything to eat. They even came up close to my house looking for food.

I was concerned about my orchard during that time. Deer love to eat young apple trees, starving or not, and the orchard is a distance from my house. When driving down the road, I could look up into the field where my apple trees are and see large numbers of deer around the trees. They even bedded down in the orchard for a few nights. 

So, I expected the worst when I hiked over to my orchard yesterday but, to my amazement, I saw no evidence of any deer damage on any treesYes, I did have a small circle of wire fencing around each tree, but still... Providence surely played a part in protecting my orchard.

Unfortunately, Providence does not also prune the trees according one of several accepted pruning systems. That part is up to me, and I can tell you that this matter of pruning is a great concern to me.

Proper pruning to shape the young trees is critically important in the early years, especially if you want an orchard that will last and produce for generations (which is my objective). But pruning apple trees is one of the hardest things I've ever tried to understand in the realm of agriculture.  

I'm a fairly intelligent person, but none of the apple pruning books and videos I've watched have been sufficiently informative. I understand the process to a point, then I'm confused. I don't like to be confused. I want perfect pruning clarity and understanding. But it eludes me.

This lack on my part stresses me. And to make matters worse, yesterday, May 2nd, is really too late to be pruning apple trees around here. I should have done it a month ago. 

Nevertheless, I did my best. I attempted to do the right thing, cutting here and there, while bending and securing selected "scaffold" branches so they are not growing too upright.

I will not show you any pictures of my pruned trees because I don't want to show my ignorance on this subject!

Next year, around February, I absolutely must take a class on apple tree pruning. I'm pretty sure Cornell University has such classes every year. I should have done this before.

A Side Note 
On Pruning Apple Trees

I mentioned The Permaculture Orchard Movie at this blog back in March. If you watch that movie you will see an explanation of apple tree pruning that is so simple that even I can fully understand it. But the technique is not suited to standard-size apple trees in a conventional orchard. 

The unconventional pruning approach in that movie is better suited to growing trees on dwarfing rootstocks. And the trees are planted fairly close together in rows. This technique is known as "tall spindle apple production." It is an idea with a lot of advantages (simplified pruning being just one) and you can learn more at this link: Tall Spindle Apple

Tall spindle apple orchard


timfromohio said...

OK, so I'm not the only one....

We had 17 semi-dwarf fruit trees I planted at our home. I stood out there early spring with several reference books struggling to understand how to properly prune the trees. Unfortunately, we were forced to relocate and just yesterday I finished planting mini-orchard part 2. 15 trees in all. Mr. Kimball, I look forward to some whizbang pruning instructions sometime before next Spring!

SharonR said...

I get confused, too, Herrick. I know this much, I think: cut off the dead limbs; cut off one of those that cross each other; and cut off the sucker shoots. Then, it gets confusing. Do you want this shape or that?

I know there is a special way to prune crepe myrtles and most people around here do it wrong. I don't need to know that. We don't have any. But, when it's done right, the plants are the most beautiful, but nothing done at all makes the plants look trashy.

Any pruning is so much better than no pruning, though you do want to do a good job, too. I'm sure you did a fine job. Thanks for the article.

Sunshine said...

Pruning the apple trees I planted in the fall was kindly taken care of for me this year by the local deer. :) But what is perplexing me is that we moved into a new home this past year and have an old pear tree on our land that produces lots of pears but has probably never been pruned; it's about 25 feet tall! I've tried reading up on how to rehabilitate such a tree, but if you happen to learn any good information on how to cut back such a tree to a usable level, I'd be interested! It seems like an impossible task for someone without professional tree-trimming equipment.

Clinton Johnson said...


You might not know it, but you really do NEED to go read "The Holistic Orchard:Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way" (

I watched the DVD (got it from the library) and am now working on the book. Both were excellent! The book is very similar to a college text book... only it's enjoyable to read! I feel like I'm getting my masters in Orcharding reading this book...

@Sunshine - it (the book) covers pruning back neglected trees as well.

-Clinton in NW Ohio

Anonymous said...

hi Herrick,

Pruning standard trees- Remove all of the dead wood, remove branches growing back into the tree, Remove the least desirable of any crossing branches. For younger trees train scaffold limbs 90 degrees apart i.e. North south east west. The next story of scaffold limbs should be offset 45 degrees from the limbs below. For older trees follow the above rules and bring the bottoms up the sides in and the tops down to allow for mowers, easier picking and separation between trees. Remove suckers or water sprouts except the ones you want to train for the future. You might want to prune to thin if your apples are too small.
Hows that work for you? - Mike Snow

SharonR said...

@Clinton Johnson -- Thank you for your reference to the fruit tree book. I needed that, especially for peach trees and I'm glad to have ordered it.

deborah harvey said...

a man said his father told him an apple tree should be pruned such that there is enough space for a robin to fly between the branches.
the Cornell courses are on the computer. some can be read at any time.
deb h.

Herrick Kimball said...

I think that you are correct that any pruning is better than no pruning. I have a very self-reliant friend who has apple trees and he gets a lot of good apples without being too persnickety about pruning exactly right.

Sorry to hear about about the deer damage.

Thanks. I do have that book and Michael Phillips other book, and I have the DVD too. He knows what he is doing, but I have a problem following him sometimes. I'm sure it's me.

Thank you. I now understand perfectly how to prune apple trees. :-)

Actually, I do understand all of that. Where it get's fuzzy for me is on pruning the ends of the scaffold branches. Should I trim them back? And what about the top of the central leader? Does that get trimmed back? If so, when and how much?

The apple tree guy from the UK on YouTube says you should be able to throw your hat through the tree after you prune it. So after showing how to properly prune a tree, he takes his hat off and throws it through the tree, but it gets stuck on a branch. Kind of funny.

You are apparently better at the Google searching than me. But I really need some one-on-one, hands on instruction, and the Cornell cooperative extension has workshops in the spring. I hope to take one next year. Thank you.

Lyle Stout said...

My dad always said that you should be able to throw a bushel basket through the apple tree when you are done. So, robin, hat, bushel basket, take your choice. Much larger than that and I couldn't lift it to throw anyway.

Anonymous said...

Hi Herrick,
Bring the tops down (end of the central leader to control height and make picking easier a standard tree wants to go up, way up, so your going to need a ladder to pick the tops but once the tree reaches a manageable height you start making cuts that are the diameter of your baby finger. This will keep it under control for several years. Eventually a lateral that you prune back to will take on a rounded shape the weight of the apples will pull it down and the top side of this lateral will "sucker out" and you will need to prune these all off. This explains why a lot of apple trees maintained for fruit have that vaguely Asian or bonsai look. Not to put too fine a point on it but if you prune out the sucker growth in the summer it will discourage future sucker growth but then you have less light getting into the center of the tree which helps keep the fruit dry which helps with fungus problems so better to prune the suckers off when you prune in late winter early spring. As far a side growth, you're mostly trying to prevent the ends from getting too low making it difficult to get a mower under the tree with out knocking off fruit separation between trees also promotes air circulation which helps with fungus and even frost damage.
As time goes on you will find that some varieties like Delicious get really hairy on the ends and require some thinning to give the apples some size. Other trees like a Mac or Cortland are more open.
I hope you enjoy pruning as much as I do. For me its a cross between sculpture and meditation
I love it and small trees are the most fun. One word of caution you can over prune sometimes its better to walk away if you think you are getting to obsessed. You can and should always carry a pair of pruners in your back pocket when your in the orchard then you can take care of any branches that still might be bothering you latter on. -Mike Snow

Herrick Kimball said...


How about a cat. That might be fun. :-)

(just kidding)

Herrick Kimball said...

Thank you for the words of wisdom and encouragement. I can see the artistic/sculptural aspects of pruning and that appeals to me a lot. But I'm in the Play-Doh stage of learning right now. I'll get it eventually.