Dad and I stood in his garden earlier this afternoon, staring at his apple tree and trying to unravel the complexities of winter pruning. To onlookers, it was as if we were standing on the precipice looking into the abyss, about to unearth the greatest archeological treasure of our time. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Father and son (Sean Connery and Harrison Ford) embarking on their greatest adventure yet, ‘Ahh Junior! This apple tree is a ‘James Grieve’ variety’.
Now I do enjoy a prune. Winter or spring, its relaxing, therapeutic and leaves me in a positive state of mind. I feel I’ve helped a plant or tree, and with any luck, in a few months’ time, I’ll be rewarded with the most colourful of blooms or the juiciest of fruits. Only this week, Soph turned a batch of cooking apples from a neighbour’s orchard, into an awesome apple cobbler. It was without a doubt the best way to get one of your five-a-day. (Hmm, I don’t think this is enough to convince Soph to bake it every week!)
However, I do not pretend for one second to be an expert. Whenever, the conversation of apple, plums, pear or raspberries come up, I have to make a beeline for my old RHS college bible, the notes that guided me through thick and thin, summer and winter, digging and harvesting. It’s gardening knowledge that I always struggle to remember. Ask me about most other gardening conundrums and I have the confidence to give you an answer. Ask me about winter pruning though, and you’re suddenly conversing with Walt Disney’s Goofy.
However, while the weather is cold and things are dormant, this is the ideal time to sharpen, clean and put those secateurs to good use.
First up, safety: goggles, hand and eye protection, hard hat. If the tree is of a certain size, will you need a second person to help you remove larger branches? Step-ladder, ladder, sometimes scaffolding. I know this is common sense, but it’s the silliest of mistakes that can cause the biggest injuries.
When pruning, I always start with the three Ds: Dead, damaged and diseased. Any branches that come under any of these descriptions, I remove first. Branches that are crossed, inward growing or rubbing I also remove, as these can lead to infection.
Next, what shape of tree are you trying to maintain? Half-standard? Dwarf? Cordon? Espalier? Also, think about its surroundings; the light it receives, the ventilation needed. Things that should have been considered when you initially planted it. Nevertheless, trees grow, environments change. There’s nothing to get stressed about, after all, you’ve had the skill and dedication to bring your fruit-forming friend this far. This is about reassuring, caring and ensuring your relationship with your fruit tree remains strong for the years to come.
Now we get to the serious part. When pruning, how much should you remove? As its winter, I tend to take no more than a third off a branch with newer growth. Cut it above a bud and on an angle, so that any moisture drains off and doesn’t sit on the cut. I always worry that if you take too much off in one go, this could do the tree a lot of damage. Not only have you removed some of the tree’s stored energy, but with so many open cuts, you’re leaving it vulnerable to the elements.
Soph’s parents have wonderful, very old, apple trees. Varieties include, Blenheim Orange, Bramley and Laxton’s Fortune. Unfortunately, in the last few years they haven’t given any fruit, and I always wondered why. A few years on, and now equipped with basic garden knowledge, I think I know: pruning. Every year they have had the new growth removed, right down to a main branch. Without the new growth there isn’t an opportunity for new buds and spurs to grow. Although they are old, I think they’ve still got a few seasons of apple harvests in them with the right pruning.
For me apple trees are not just about the fruit, it’s that beautiful blossom we get from them in the spring in wistful whites to delicate pinks. I would love several more fruit trees, but sadly our garden is already at full capacity. My dream of growing an orchard will have to wait for the next garden.
For now, I shall lavish my attentions on my sole Crab Apple tree and day-dream for bigger fruit.