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Apple tree pruning

 
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Hello,

I am new to this forum, so forgive me if these questions have been asked.

I planted a honey crisp apple tree last Fall and it was pretty tall to begin with, but I read that a tree should not be topped because it can kill the tree. This year it has a lot of apples on it making it too heavy, so I braced it, but is there anything else I can do? Can I prune a little off the top in the Fall? Pics attached.

Also, it is being attacked by Japanese Beetles. I heard Milky Spore can kill the grubs but what do I do to kill the adults besides spraying Sevin on them? Not a fan because that kills beneficial insects.
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garden master
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I wouldn't worry about the Japanese beetles too much. Just from the pictures it looks like your tree is very healthy with really green leaves.

They get my trees a little bit too, but I'm ok with letting them get a little taste and not having to worry about spraying.

My pruning preference is to minimize pruning if I can, which minimizes open areas for disease to spread to the tree, and the tree won't have to spend extra energy healing from the cuts. If you're ok with letting the tree grow tall, you could just stake the tree for now and remove any apples growing towards the ends of the limbs, which tend to weigh the tree over, leaving apples near the stronger trunk area which won't weigh the tree over.

Congratulations on such a healthy looking apple tree and hopefully some apples soon to come!
 
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Curious to see more responses.  If it was my tree I would top it to save it from breaking and to keep it shorter.   I've never heard of that killing an apple tree and haven't had it kill any of mine, but maybe there's something I don't know there.  I like to prune to keep my apple trees open and keep them from breaking; the method I learned and use is to create two tiers of branches, each tier having 3 main branches evenly spaced.  The growth on those branches should never criss-cross, and not be shooting straight up.  This really opens the tree up and makes accessing apples easy, helps prevent branch damage from fruit weight, allows me to climb the trees really easily, since the center of the tree is spacious, and access fruit and keep an eye on things better.  I also try not to remove more than 25% of the tree in one year; way less at a time if it's not in desperate need of pruning.    It's not something that needs to happy yearly,  other than keeping suckers in check.  The more energy the tree puts into creating suckers, the less energy it's putting into the older fruit-bearing growth.  The suckers might not fruit the first year, and if/when they do, they break way easier, in my experience.  
I'm not saying this is the "right" way to do it, it's just how I learned, and it's served me well.  Trees look nice and inviting too
 
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I'd be curious to know where you read that the tree shouldn't be topped, and that doing so would kill it.  I've never heard that, and my personal experience is that any fruit tree can be topped -- and topped repeatedly.  I've never lost a tree due to topping, and I've had a lot of fruit trees over the decades (well over 100).

Think about it this way: in nature, when a tree gets too tall and sticks out above the canopy, that tree will absorb a lot more of the energy around it.  Positively, it will capture more of the sunlight.  But negatively, it will also absorb more of the wind, and extreme wind will snap it off.  So the trees in the forest work in concert with one another.  They share the solar energy via the underground root network.  In a forest, you'll find stumps of old trees that were cut down 30, 40, 50 years ago, and they still have an active root network that is kept alive by the other trees that surround it, feeding it sugars and other nutrients.  Crazy, huh.  So trees like to be a member of a team.  Tall trees share with the shorter ones, particularly the baby trees in the "nursery" on the forest floor below. They collaborate far more than they compete.  Thus, the tall trees gets pruned by nature (strong winds) and kept in a healthy ratio to the other trees around it.

I used to subscribe to the "single leader" theory of tree pruning and development.  Mostly, I liked that look in my orchard.  I wanted to utilize that vertical space, so I let the trees get tall and only kept a single tall central leader.  And it lead to problems like you're facing -- overloaded and spindly bent trees.  Now I aggressively cut them back to about 3 feet in year 2 or 3 to encourage strong lateral growth, and then I keep them no taller than 5 or 6 feet.  Just last winter, I went through and cut all my plums and pluots to 5 feet, and this year's harvest has been amazing.  Why no taller than 6 feet?  Because that's how tall I am, and I can only reach about 7.5 feet comfortably.  I don't want to drag a ladder all over the orchard, or have my arms ache when I'm pruning, thinning and picking.

If it were me:
1.  I'd aggressively thin the fruit, starting at the top of the tree and moving downward.  Take some weight out of that tree right now, but continue to let the tree grow and store energy as it prepares for winter.
2.  Next winter, I'd take a sharp pair of loppers and give the tree a serious haircut.  I'd cut the main trunk/leader off at about 4.5 feet or so.  The sooner you do this (in the life of the tree), the smaller the wound will be and more likely it will heal-over.
3.  Going forward, continue to take mass out of that tree every dormant season.  

Honeycrisp are notorious for overbearing and then for the apples to become massive -- bigger than a softball.  So for these first few seasons until your lateral branches become stronger, you may wish to aggressively thin the apples earlier in the season to keep the weight on the branches down.

Best of luck.
 
Marco Banks
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One more thing: put some newspaper down over the grass around the tree, and cover it with some kind of carbon mulch (wood chips, compost, leaves, other biomass).  Pile it up 6 inches deep, but not right against the trunk of the tree.  Smother that grass around the base of the tree naturally -- no need to pull it up or, heaven forbid, kill it with Round-up.  Trees are generally not good friends with grass.  Once you've eliminated the grass, next year you might consider planting a guild of tree-friendly plants around it.  Perhaps a comfrey plant about 3 feet from the base of the tree, as well as some flowers to attract pollinators, a nitrogen fixing plant or three, and a cabbage.  Why?  Because I think there should be at least one edible plant in any plant guild.  Mmmmm . . . cole slaw.

This will attract and feed a much broader community of microbes in the soil around the tree.
This will attract and feed a much broader community of biota (like earthworms) around the tree.
This will shade the base of the tree, keeping the roots cooler.
This will pump sugars and other carbon into the soil via the root exudates of the companion plants.
 
Carla Larscheid
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Thanks, everyone. I appreciate the quick and thorough responses! I read the information about topping a young tree in an SFGate article. I also saw similar comments in other forums.

Marco, the tree is > 7 feet tall...when I cut the tree in Winter,  are you saying I should cut it down to 4 1/2 feet tall? If you look at the picture, should I cut it right before the “y” at the top?

Glad I came here to get different points of view, experiences and advice. Very friendly group here; thanks for the warm welcome!
 
Carla Larscheid
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Wanted to add that I have a little fence around the trunk of the tree because bucks will use the trunk as a rubbing post (buck rubs killed my young crab apple tree) The bar of soap hanging there keeps the deer from munching on the branches. For now, it has been a wonderful repellent.
 
Marco Banks
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Carla Larscheid wrote:

Marco, the tree is > 7 feet tall...when I cut the tree in Winter,  are you saying I should cut it down to 4 1/2 feet tall? If you look at the picture, should I cut it right before the “y” at the top?



Yup.  That's where I'd prune it.  Ouch . . . I know, it seems like such a brutal act.  Wait until the tree is completely dormant, and be bold. They are too thick now to bend over and train to be a scaffold branch.  I'd cut it there, or perhaps even a foot lower.  How tall are you?  Let that be a guide.

It's a bit like raising children.  The Arabs have a saying: if you are going to kill a snake, kill it when it's small.  Its a whole lot easier to discipline a young child and train them to be obedient, honest, generous and well-behaved when they are small, than to try to accomplish these things when they are teens.  Nothing worse (in my opinion) than a 3-year old terrorist running their family, throwing tantrums, and being a miserable human being.  (I'm venturing into Cider Press territory here -- I know, but bear with me).

The time to heavily prune a tree is when it's young.  Get the primary shape that you want and select the primary lateral branches.  That will be this winter.  in the years to come, you won't have to do anything so dramatic.

Why wait for winter?  Because even though its bending over, those leaves are still producing sugar and feeding the roots and the entire tree.  When fall comes, the leaves will drop and the sugars/sap will get pulled down into the root ball.  Its like an underground battery of energy.  That's when you can prune.  You're not fighting the tree then.  When spring comes, that reserved store of energy gets pushed up into the branches and it bursts forth with new leaves and blossoms.  If you prune now, you're taking away the ability of the plant to charge the underground battery.

Here's a couple of good videos on pruning young apples.  This first video is training a tree to have a central leader.  I like the way he goes about shaping his tree.



This video is good because she talks about the different kinds of branches, different ways of pruning if it's a dwarf, semi-draft or standard.  Her tree is pruned into a vase shape rather than a central leader.  It's your call what shape you want your tree to be.  I go with this shape now on all my trees.  Different strokes. . . .



Be bold!


 
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