The image above is from Full-Color Fruit Crate Labels, courtesy Dover Publications.
IF YOU LIVE IN A RURAL AREA or have a large property, there's a good chance you have one or more apple trees. You may have planted them yourself, but it's also possible that they appeared on their own. Wild apple trees have been cropping up all over the North American landscape for a couple of hundred years now.
Only a few species of crabapple are considered native here, but a wide variety of apples have been introduced since the arrival of European settlers, sometimes deliberately but often just because someone threw an apple core in the right place. I have one apple tree that is growing happily where my compost bin used to be. I moved the bin rather than cut down the apple because it amuses me to think that it must have grown from an apple core one of my parents tossed into the trash.
Wild apples are one of the exceptions (and there are some) to the general rule that "native is better" in choosing plants for the wildlife garden. Wild apples provide food in the form of fruit, seeds, buds, nectar, sap, and insects. Birds nest in the branches. The older trees develop cavities that are prized as nest sites by many species. The list of animals that benefit from wild apples includes everything from bears to butterflies.
If you are lucky enough to have wild apples on your property, you can just let them grow. A friend of mine refers to these untended apple trees as "living brush piles" and happily enjoys watching all the birds and other animals they attract.
However, you can also prune wild apple trees to encourage fruit production. If you want to prune your apple trees, this is probably a good time to start. Most authorities say that you should prune apples as late in winter as possible (so as to avoid damage from harsh cold) but before leaves begin to appear on the tree. In most regions, this means pruning sometime between late February and early April. Pruning can be hard work (especially if you're out of shape after a long winter), so I've decided to start now but plan on working only for short periods when the weather is good. That way I can take it easy and do only as much work as I feel like doing on any given day.
Here are a few key things to remember when pruning an apple tree. Many of these pointers also apply to pruning other trees and shrubs:
- The first step in pruning any tree or shrub is to remove dead or diseased branches and branches that are crossed or rubbing together.
- Fruit production is stimulated by sunlight, so a lot of your effort in pruning an apple tree will be to expose the branches to light. Neglected apple trees tend to get quite dense, so you will also want to thin out the canopy so as to allow sunlight to reach the remaining branches. Typically this means removing a few limbs.
- But never remove more than 1/3 of the canopy of any plant in one year. If the plant needs a lot of work, plan on stretching it out over several years.
- Apple trees must be pollinated by another apple tree in order to bear fruit. So there is no point in pruning an apple tree if you have only one tree in the area. If you have an apple tree that isn't fruiting, consider planting one nearby.
- Horizontal branches (that is, those that extend at an angle of 45 to 90 degrees from the trunk) are the strongest and also the ones that receive the most sunlight. So you will want to keep those.
- In contrast, drooping branches, branches that shoot upward (aka water sprouts) and branches forming on the lower trunk and coming up from the root (aka suckers) should be removed.
- Branches that are growing in toward the trunk instead of away from it are often removed so as to keep the interior of the tree open. But again, don't take too much in one year.
- For aesthetic reasons and in order to make it easier to reach the fruit, some people shorten apple trees by chopping off the tops. This isn't necessary if you are growing the trees for wildlife. Pruning the tops of trees requires special equipment, and climbing on ladders is dangerous, so unless you have a really powerful reason to keep the tree short, I wouldn't bother with this type of pruning.
- Proper pruning technique is important to prevent disease from getting into the tree. There are lots of good resources online (see below).
- Once you've pruned your apple trees, consider using the branches to make brush piles. This will create even more habitat for wildlife.
Of the resources I found online, my favorite document on pruning wild apple trees for wildlife came from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, an excellent all-around source for information on gardening in the Northeast: Wild Apple Trees for Wildlife
Some other good resources on pruning wild apple trees:
NRCS Natural Resources Conservation Service Upland Wildlife Habitat Management: Apple Tree Release and Pruning (pdf file)
Winter Pruning of Trees by Paul Rodman
Wild Apple Trees: Pruning for Wildlife by Scott Dunlop
How to Prune Apple Trees Between Autumn and Spring (video)
Managing Abandoned Orchards and Apple Trees for Wildlife
And here is a good resource on pruning from the U. of Maine: Pruning Woody Landscape Plants.