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Wilkinson: Pruning Apple Trees

Winter is finally here. And every bright, sunny day beckons me to get out and tend to my apple trees. The trees would be fine if I never laid a finger on them. But if I want bigger, more abundant, and accessible apples, I need to prune. Apple trees are dormant in winter, which is exactly when we should do the pruning – so when they wake up in the spring, not knowing anything has happened, they’ll direct all their energy to whatever branches are left.

I learned how to prune over the several years I worked at Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, NH. Owner Steve Wood gave me the basics: isolate the leader so there’s a strong main stem. Make sure sunlight can get to all of the branches, even those center bottom ones. Make it look Christmas tree-ish. When in doubt, cut it out.

The first days of pruning were frightening because I was cutting off exactly what we were trying to grow. But there were 15,000 trees to prune and only a handful of us to do it. Cut it off, don’t think about it, and move along. I spent time admiring the work of fearless Fitz, the Jamaican seasonal worker turned full timer who was the best at it. What remained of his lopped trees actually made sense. If not cut, this branch would’ve shaded another, would’ve broken with the weight of the apples, or maybe there was deer or porcupine damage. Mostly though, it was just in the wrong place.

Here’s some more practical stuff I learned. Wear insulated work clothes that’ll keep you warm and save your thighs from cuts by your hand saw. Overalls are best so branches don’t grab your shirttails or fall down your waistband. Hold on tight to your tools so you don’t have to climb down to retrieve them... over and over again. Don’t cut the branch that’ll help you get down until you’re on the ground again. If a branch hits you in the face, chop it off. Bring your dog because you’re essentially throwing sticks he can chase all day. Work alongside the naturalist every now and then so he can tell you about the snow buntings that just flew overhead. Make sure you put sunscreen under your chin and nose, too.

Most importantly, when high up in that tree, stop and look around at the wonder that is New England in winter.

Come autumn, you’ll be tasting it, too.