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Welcome to 2013 and a Winter Pruning Party

February 24th, 2013 at Sun, 24th, 2013 at 4:01 pm by Karen Dale


It can be difficult to stir one’s bones in cold weather, get outside and do what needs to be done. It helps (me, at least) to make it a social occasion — and dangle the bait of getting my own apple tree.

The Fruit Club convened at Pacific Crest Farm on Maury Island in early February for a Winter Pruning Workshop. Host Bob Keller met us at a stand of young apple trees. He’s the farm manager for the Pacific Crest Montessori School in Seattle, which bought this former fruit farm from Pete Svinth in 2000.

Each tree was about 10-15 feet high with a relatively shallow fruiting zone. “I’d like to increase their height by leaving about 5-6 of the 40-or-so water sprouts to grow on into productive limbs,” Keller said into the microphone. “And I’d like enough room to run my riding mower underneath without scraping off my hat.” We all laughed. 

Dr. Bob Norton had prepared laminated cards with instructions for winter-pruning apple trees. “There’s quite a few water sprouts on these trees, so you want to chose the ones leaning closest to a 45° angle and keep those. The rest, cut ‘em off. Now, let’s look at what the card says… 

Step 1: Read the tree for Vigor. ”This tree’s pretty well-formed, some vertical water-sprouts that Keller mentioned, but we’ll leave a few leaners so that they’ll become productive. You can snip the end to a down-facing bud in hopes it’ll grow out more horizontal.” Step 2: Remove Suckers. There aren’t any suckers growing from the base of the trunk, but let’s take this hat-snagger as part of Step 3: Remove shaded branches that will have their sunlight blocked by upper branches…” (the whole list is below).

Somebody suggested marking the branches to be cut with a squirt from a paint can. One doesn’t want to remove more than 30% of the tree, so by marking all the candidates for cutting before wielding the snips, you can estimate when you’ve marked close to 30% BEFORE cutting anything.

It was easy to spot the water-sprouts—so pale and vertical, with few if any fruit spurs. Ditto the criss-crossing branches or those angled toward the ground.  What was harder to visualize was the future weight of fruit on the end of a branch. But arborist Michelle Ramsden, here to help, had a good tip. She draped a forearm over a branch-end bristling with fruit spurs, weighting the limb down. “See how the tree is rocking a bit when I’m putting on the equivalent weight of what could be 10-20 apples out here? See how the crotch of this branch is widening? With a lot of fruit, that could split. So let’s cut back to… let’s see…this upper branch further back on the main limb. We’ll lose some fruit, but that’s better than losing the whole limb.” 

High on a ladder, Bob Keller was also heading back overly long whips. He cut each about 25-30%. These shorter limbs wouldn’t sag or snap as easily with a heavy load of fruit. 

After working on the apple trees, we moved to a tall pear tree with WAY too many fruit spurs. Keller said, “last year, each of these branches had a cluster of a dozen tiny pears.” Dr. Bob shouldered into the tree’s center and said, “Right! instead of a lots of little pears, we want to have 2-3 nice-sized ones. So every cluster of spurs, pinch off all but 2-4. We need to drop a few hundred excess spurs, so everybody, START PINCHING! (BEFORE spurs are circled in red, AFTER pinched spurs in green). And Michelle, why don’t you get a ladder and shorten this trunk so we get an open center on these outer branches that’ll are so much easier to reach.”

After an hour of working at Pacific Crest Farm, we migrated around the corner to the home of LuAnne Branch. Her property was also once owned by Pete Svinth, and here he’d planted 125 apples, mostly Jonagolds—way too many for the present owner’s needs. “We have cider parties, invite friends over to harvest, freeze cider, make applesauce—and there’d STILL be trees to pick,” LuAnne told me. So, she decided to offer the club an ownership stake: by adopting and pruning a tree each, the members could return in October to harvest “their” apples. 

Here I met Gloria, who’d been working with arborist Michelle Ramsden. In this BEFORE and AFTER shot, you can see how she’s thinned out by half the clutter of thin branches in the center. 

I chose the tree in the NW corner (can always find THAT one). Dr. Bob chose the one next to me, so I benefited from extra coaching. “Don’t snip those claw-like hangers: they’re fruiting spurs—see how they end in chubby buds? And wipe your snips with your baby-wipes: these trees are full of anthracnose fungus. See that open blister with what look like fiddle-strings? That’s the fungus: it’ll girdle the branch and kill it, eventually. Endemic to the Maritime Northwest—it’s on the ground—nothing to do but cut off as many branches with the disease as you can.” 

Winter pruning can be done right through March when the leaves break out. For stone fruits like peaches and apricots, wait until bloom to get a preview of how much fruit you might get. A little bloom, a little bit of pruning. A lot of bloom, do plenty of heading back to draw the fruit’s eventual weight onto thicker wood.

(condensed from a chapter on “Apple Trees and a Fruit Club” in my upcoming garden book.)

10 Steps for Winter Pruning Apple Trees

compiled for the Fruit Club by Dr. Bob Norton. Printed by permission.

1) Read the tree for vigor and fruiting potential 

2) Remove suckers from base and ground

3. Remove shaded lower branches

4. Consider creating a ladder bay for pruning, light penetration and harvesting

5. Remove surplus and/or crossing branches

6. cut back “hangers” – branches that dip below the horizontal

7. Cut branches with excess spurs to half their length

8. Top of tree – reduce height if useful

9. Remove water sprouts (follow up in late spring as there will be more)

10. Step back and evaluate the tree for balance.



gardens on the south end of Vashon Island, on a sandy hilltop overlooking Quartermaster Harbor. "Garden On, Vashon" shares what the Island has to teach us about gardening HERE—from making soils to sowing seeds to raising plants to harvest, cooking, preserving, and designing new ways to cultivate your little chunk of Vashon Island. To contact me, email, or leave a comment.

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