Spur type Apple trees

How to Prune Tip-Bearing Apple Trees

The apple image by nsa1977 from Fotolia.com

Pruning keeps fruit trees healthy, encourages stronger limbs and new growth, prevents trees from becoming too tall and eliminates diseased or dying branches. You can prune apple trees at almost any time of year, but Oregon State University recommends you prune trees in late winter, before new growth in the spring. Most modern varieties of apples produce fruit on spurs, or small side branches, and are known as spur-bearing apples. But some older varieties, such as Gravenstein, Winesap, Pippin and Macintosh, produce fruit at the ends of branches; these are known as tip-bearing apples.

Stand 10 feet away from the tree and study its form. Identify the largest central branches. Most apple trees are pruned using the central leader method, with a main central trunk and several branches spreading horizontally from this trunk.

Position your ladder beside the tree trunk. Carry your pruning saw up the ladder and stand on the second from last or next to last step—wherever you feel most comfortable. Imagine you’re picking apples. How far could you reach? Cut back the central branch to this height. Make a clean cut, straight across with the pruning saw.

Cut off any branches or limbs that grow straight up or straight down. The straight up branches are known as water sprouts and rarely bear fruit. Use the pruning saw to remove larger branches and limbs and the loppers to cut off thinner limbs and twigs.

Remove any branches that cross other branches. Your goal is to open up the interior of the tree so that light and air reach more of the main limbs.

Remove older branches that have become less productive. As you cut older branches, identify newer branches you want to take their place.

Prune the top of the tree every four to five years to keep the tree at a manageable height for picking apples. You will lose some production from that part of the tree in the years you prune, but new growth in subsequent years will make up for the loss.

I’ve always been a bit confused about proper pruning techniques. You’ve got your winter pruning for spur-bearing fruit trees, winter pruning for tip-bearing fruit trees and summer pruning to keep your trees at a manageable height.

There are some people like Sepp Holzer and Masanobu Fukuoka that even advocate against pruning at all, although they both specify that your unpruned fruit trees need to be propagated and managed in a certain way from the start.

With that said, I’ve seen some old, overgrown and unproductive fruit trees brought back to production with just a few years of good pruning management.

So, where to start?

There are a few things that you need to know before diving in, pruning secateurs in hand. First and foremost, does your fruit tree produce on spurs or is it tip-bearing?

It’s also important to understand how the fruit tree has been shaped in its first few years. Some fruit trees (like the plum in the video) lend themselves to a vase shape with four main branches pointing off in opposite directions. These branches are called the framework. Lateral branches grow from the framework, and, in the case of the plum tree, send out fruiting spurs that can produce fruit for years to come.

In the video Justin Calverley from Sensory Gardens demonstrates his technique for winter pruning of spur-bearing, deciduous fruit trees.

Start with the Three Ds:

  1. Dead
  2. Diseased
  3. Damaged

Then, when that is out of the way, he prunes back most of the one-year-old growth that wouldn’t be productive and thinned out any overcrowded areas.

Lastly he recommends pruning back the productive laterals to within 30cm of the framework branches. This keeps the tree nice and compact and greatly reduces any issues of overbearing fruit trees that can get damaged in windy conditions. It also activates some of the dormant buds to produce spurs on the framework of the tree.

How winter pruning helps

Winter pruning of deciduous fruit trees can help with a number of different things.

  1. You can keep your fruit within arms reach to avoid carrying around a ladder.
  2. It is much easier to net your trees against hungry birds
  3. Winter pruning stimulates new growth

I’ve read of a handful of situations where pruning might not be the best way forward. In the outer zones of a Permaculture design, or if you are trying to minimise your labour and still get a harvest, then pruning might be best avoided. From my perspective a well-formed and pruned fruit tree is appealing and the benefits of learning how and when to prune is something I look forward to learning!

Spur Bearing Apple Info: Pruning Spur Bearing Apple Trees In The Landscape

With so many varieties available, shopping for apple trees can be confusing. Add terms like spur bearing, tip bearing and partial tip bearing and it can be even more confusing. These three terms simply describe where the fruit grows on the tree’s branches. Most commonly sold apple trees are spur bearing. So what is a spur bearing apple tree? Continue reading to learn more.

Spur Bearing Apple Info

On spur bearing apple trees, fruit grows on small thorn-like shoots (called spurs), which grow evenly along the main branches. Most spur bearing apples bear fruit the second or third year. The buds develop in mid-summer to late fall, then the next year it flowers and bears fruit.

Most spur bearing apple trees are dense and compact. They are easy to grow as espaliers because of their compact habit and abundance of fruit throughout the plant.

Some common spur bearing apple tree varieties are:

  • Candy Crisp
  • Red Delicious
  • Golden Delicious
  • Winesap
  • Macintosh
  • Baldwin
  • Chieftain
  • Fuji
  • Jonathan
  • Honeycrisp
  • Jonagold
  • Zestar

Pruning Spur Bearing Apple Trees

So you may be thinking what does it matter where the fruit grows on the tree as long as you get fruit. Pruning spur bearing apples is different than pruning tip or partial tip bearing varieties, though.

Spur bearing apple trees can be pruned harder and more often because they bear more fruit throughout the plant. Spur bearing apple trees should be pruned in winter. Remove dead, diseased and damaged branches. You can also prune branches to shape. Do not prune off all the fruit buds, which will be easy to identify.

(Malus domestica)

Granny Smith Spur Apple

I believe the homeowners harvest the best apples from the Spur types, especially in the warm/hot Central Valley climates and hot Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas areas which have the winter chill hours. Most well known apples do not do well in our hot climates but Spur types will because of how the foliage protects the fruit on the inner spur wood.

The public or nursery personnel have not understood the value of Spur apples:
1. They are compact growers.
2. They set quantities of good quality apples on short spurs on the main limbs and trunks. They do not weight down the limbs and the fruit is protected by the outer limbs and foliage. We had Crimson and Yellow Spur trees near the house and we had large quality apples that did not produce on most standard trees in our heat.
3. We have 6 Spur varieties in our orchards, but only list three because we have failed to sell them where needed. Crimson and Yellow are similar in eating quality to Red and Yellow Delicious apples. Granny Smith Spur sets very heavily with very good apples, more than a family can easily use.
My wife and I have not eaten an Arkansas Black from a standard tree but many from the Spur trees. I also like Bisbee Spur which sets a good crop of tasty apples every year.

Visalia is not apple climate but my wife makes quantities of applesauce each summer for our winter fruit for breakfast when out of bananas and citrus. I am fond of warm applesauce on a cold January morning.

GRANNY SMITH SPUR came from eastern Washington. We planted in our orchard 2/21/91. When the fruit drops, the ground is all green and still lots of good fruit on the trees. This selection sets a very heavy crop of quality apples with what seems like thousands per one tree. Large, skin displays slight striping on green. Flesh is firm, sweet/tart. The apple is good as fresh fruit, cooking, and sauce. Ripens September – October. 400 hours chilling but does well in cold climates.

RED DELICIOUS (CRIMSON) SPUR looks like a lighter colored Red Delicious. This selection is large with good flavor and better than the varieties in the stores today. The variety was brought from Canada in 1968 so not one of today’s tasteless apples. The fruit is large with red waxy skin, firm white crisp and juicy flesh with good flavor. The fruit ripens September – October and needs 800 chilling hours.

YELLOW DELICIOUS (Yelo) SPUR is similar in appearance and taste to the old, very popular Yellow Delicious apple. This selection was brought from Canada in 1967. It is a large Golden Delicious with crisp firm delicious flesh. Ripens September – October and needs 600 chilling hours.

Bob Ludekens

Ron’s note 9/14/16: Currently we are only growing the Granny Smith Spur Apple – and it is an all around favorite. Seems the popularity of the Red and Yellow Delicious Apples (and of course the lesser known spur selections) are waning as so many other great apples are on the market.

See more photos on Granny Smith Spur Apple – especially how loaded it gets: Granny Smith Spur Apple Photos

Point of sale Information Page: Granny Smith Spur Apple

After several year’s evaluation of a variety collection of 645 original varieties at Holovousy made it possible to distinguish 31 spur and semi spur varieties (e.i. 4.8 %), 6 of them being distinct spur types similar to the best mutants (like ‘Mac Spur’). As concerning the hybridization programme so far only crosses were evaluated that were not crossed with the aim to obtaim spur type varieties. From the whole lot of 9 221 seedlings 603 ones (6,5 %) shows a spur type character, from which 41 (0.4 %) could be of distinct dwarf (sturdy) spur types. The highest proportion of the desirable growth types segregates in the crosses of spur type varieties, then after selfing of some varieties or in the case of sib crosses. That confirms a recessive type of heritability. During the 15 year’s programme of mutation breeding a serie of perspective spur type mutants has been obtained from 6 varieties, while it has not been successful with another 4 varieties. Further more than 20 spur type mutants of foreign origin is being evaluated. The spur types show a rather great variability concerning the degree of spurring and dwarfing. The evaluation of growth habit can be influenced by a rootstock, climatic conditions and planting density.

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