Joel Carter: To earn a harvest boon, you must winter prune

It may surprise many to learn that winter is a very busy time of the year for orchardists. While our trees aren’t growing, the irrigation isn’t running, and we can’t break ground to plant trees, we have perhaps the single largest job of any successful orchard – winter pruning.

When apple trees are dormant, orchardists have the opportunity to manage everything from crop load, fruit size, and tree vigor, to correcting tree posture. We do this through carefully cutting the trees during winter pruning.Joel Carter pruning

Amongst apple growers, pruning is a form of art. It isn’t something that can be simply taught; it takes years of experience, endless lectures on theory, and a certain degree of intuition to anticipate how the tree will grow. No two growers prune the same way, and apple growers often disagree on the correct way to prune an apple tree. I’ll give you a quick breakdown of how I like to prune my trees, though I’m sure plenty of apple growers would be horrified by some of my tactics!

I belong to the school of aggressive apple pruning and typically err on the side of cutting more, rather than less. I do this because I grow on good, healthy soil, and I have a robust nutrient program to ensure my trees get the nutrition they need. As a result, our trees often put too much energy into their leaves and branches, and not enough into producing fruit spurs (young fruit buds that will grow into apples). By cutting aggressively I stress the trees and encourage fruit spur development, while also reducing the overall bushiness of my trees.

The first thing I do when I approach a new tree is look at the tree’s size and vigor. How much did it grow last year? How many apples can it support? Often, I’m able to quickly figure out a specific number of apples I want on my tree.

I then mentally break the tree into sections, and count the fruit spurs in each section. From there I can prune my branches so that they’ll grow the ideal number of apples in an even distribution throughout the tree. First, I remove fruit spurs at the tips of branches, and spurs that are clumped together.

The ideal fruit is grown close to the trunk of the tree, has its own branch, and has no shade. This takes a lot of spur counting and branch training, so I keep that end goal in mind whenever I make a cut.

While that barely scratches the surface of pruning techniques, hopefully it provides an idea of what apple growers are doing this time of year. Growers are always happy to talk pruning theory, so if you have any of your own trees and want some pointers or have any questions, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to give you my two cents!

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About Joel Carter

Joel, son of founders Neal and Louisa, has seen Arctic apples evolve from an idea to a delicious fruit, and even helped plant the first orchard! Joel’s lifelong experience in the orchard and with Arctic apples makes him the perfect fit to head up field operations.

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