Keeping your fruit trees in check with their summer pruning starts NOW. For me that means it's apple espalier pruning time. My espaliers are in their 5th year and I'm still using the basic principles of pruning AND I'm seeing the results.
You're supposed to prune your apple trees during the summer solstice. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere that's around June 20th. For everyone in the Southern Hemisphere that's around December 20th.
The reason for this timing has to do with the the stages of growth of apple trees and their production of hormones. Pruning apple or pear trees right now, is what will help them develop more apples or pears next year. Why?
Because when you prune the ends of branches off it forces the growth downwards instead of upwards. That means instead of growing longer branches, once they're pruned, the apple will *hopefully* grow short, little fruiting spurs.
And those are what you want if you want to grow your own bushel of apples.
Don't want to grow your own bushel of apples because you can buy them in the store?
If you're going to buy one and only one organic item at the grocery store, for the love of all that is holy, make it your apples.
There are enough pesticides on a standard apple to knock the balls off a bull. Up to 48 different pesticides on a single apple to be precise.
Now, in defence of the farmers, it isn't that they're willy nilly wanting to spray pesticides all over our food because it's fun to see their customers grow arms out of their foreheads, it's that apples are notoriously difficult to grow. They have scabs and worms and rot. Apples. The crack whores of the fruit world.
I wish I could say that that's the reason I decided to grow my own apple trees, that I wanted to be as natural and health conscious as possible, but the truth of the matter is I just think apple espaliers look cool. Plus I love growing the food that I eat; only partly because it's all organic.
A lot of the appeal for me is the actual work involved in growing food and the convenience of being able to pick it right from my front yard. Other than one particular cantaloupe I grew last year I'm not even convinced the food I grow tastes that much better than grocery store produce. Also my corn was pretty great. And my tomatoes. You know what? Scratch that last part, it does taste better, I don't know what I was thinking.
The thing that held me back from growing an apple tree for years was the sheer size of one, plus taking care of an apple tree seemed intimidating. An apple tree would be stinking huge on my lot, plus you need a couple of them for pollination. Enter the apple espalier. An apple tree trained to grow flat against a wall or fence taking up no more space than a pool noodle.
Don't believe me? This was my espalier year 1.
My espalier year 2 ...
My espalier year 3 ...
And my espalier this year, year 5. The exact same height as it was when I planted it 5 years ago.
Apple espaliers were only available at specialty nurseries for the longest time, making your only other option to graft and train one yourself. Things took a turn for the better for me when I happened across apple espaliers at my local Home Depot for around $70 each. I bought two, brought them home and wired them up. (There's a very specific way you have to train espaliers so they thrive, stay small and maintain their shape ... read my post on training an espalier here.)
The next step I had to master was pruning the thing. Keeping my apple espaliers small, and encouraging them to produce fruit ... not leaves and branches. Read on.
How to Summer Prune an Apple Espalier
- The time to prune apple trees if you want to keep them small is during the Summer Solstice. June 20th of this year 'round these parts. Not only will summer pruning help keep your trees small it encourages WAY more fruiting branches.
Winter pruning on the other hand is for creating the shape of your fruit tree and when you go in and get rid of unwanted branches
This is my tree moments prior to pruning it in its second year. You can see the long "whippy" branches growing up from the main stems. THESE are what need to be pruned.
2. Prune the thin, whippy branches, not the shorter fatter ones. Thin ones are just branches, the shorter, fatter branches (only a couple of inches long) are spurs that will produce fruit.
3. Don't cut the entire whip off. Find the "basal" leaves (the cluster of tightly packed leaves near the base of the whip and count 3 leaves up. Cut just above the 3rd leaf from the basal cluster. This will keep the tree small and encourage the tree to produce fruiting spurs below the cut.
So which ones are the regular leaves compared to the basal leaves? Well sometimes it's hard to tell because the basal leaves don't aways grow literally in a cluster at the base. Just look for the first leaf that is obviously further away from the first pack of leaves on the stem and count that as your first leaf.
4. Cut the whip just above the 3rd leaf along the same direction as the leaf is growing.
It's very much like cutting a rose bush.
Leave the spurs (easily identifiable because they're shorter, fatter and might even have fruit hanging off of them) because they do not grow back and they're what the fruit grows from.
Here's what my little espalier looked like the first year.
And here it is today the second year after pruning.
The trees are the same height but MUCH fuller now. In the winter I'm going to do some hard shaping of the tree so it's a little more sparse than it is now.
That's it. That's all there is to a basic trimming of your apple tree. Do the exact same thing if you're trimming a standard tree. If you trim like this and show no mercy you can keep your regular apple tree no taller than 4 or 5 feet if you want.
If you're looking for more detailed information on growing little fruit trees you HAVE to read the book Grow a Little Fruit Tree. It's really well written (i.e. it isn't boring) and she goes into detail about how to prune, how much fruit you can expect and the story of how the whole world was pruning its fruit trees incorrectly until one stubborn and adventurous man changed things.
No bulls balls were harmed during the growing of these apples.
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Let me know when you figure out how to draw fruit out of my very lonely but beloved and beautiful avocado tree, Theodora.
These do look fun, though, and I ate the first cherry tomatoes off the bush in my stairwell today. It's the only one that is indeterminate and "staked" to grow tall. I need to take a picture and post it for you.
Hi, I did the summer solstice pruning on my new espaliers. But, they are all big again. Can I prune them in the Fall too?
Hi, I did the summer solstice pruning on my new espaliers. But, they are all big again. Can I prune them now too?
Hi Colleen. Mine got huge this year too! So, against my better judgement I did another trim. :) A summer pruning. I pruned everything back to within 3 leaves of where I could see spurs forming or basal leaves. I will cross my fingers and hope for the best. ~ karen!
Thank you. I will have a go at it again.
Hi Karen 😊 great article. Thanks for the advice. I too have my first espaliered apple trees. The first one was a young honey crisp apple tree that I espaliered myself and after reading they need another tree within 50 ft I purchased a pre-espaliered multi-Apple Tree (Yellow delicious, Gravenstein, Fuji, Gala, red Macintosh, summer red 🤗) Several of the varieties have flowered and have little apples forming. Very exciting to watch. I’m planning on following your advice and doing a June 20th (summer solstice) prune but was curious to hear an update on how your second pruning in August went. How did the trees fair? Are you glad u did it or should I stick to the once a year method? Thanks again for the article. Sending you blessings in these crazy times!
Hi Kristy! I won't know if I'm glad about it until I see the amount of blossoms I have this year.🤣 And thank you! ~ karen!
How do you keep the squirrels from stealing all your apples? Our trees are full of apples every year, but the squirrells starts stealing them just before they ripen and we've eaten exactly 1 apple from it in the last 8 years! They just dissappear! They neighbours find apples hidden all over their yards.
Several different ways to save your fruit on your trees.
This link will tell you different ways depending on your needs.
Hope this helps
Oh lord, I have the same problem! I've done various things from covering them with plastic bags to covering the whole espalier with netting. This year I'm going to spray the apples with kaolin clay to see if that helps. If it doesn't then I'll try to cover the whole espaliers in netting again - but this time do a better job of making it squirrel proof. ~ karen!
Brilliant article and so timely for me! Agree about organic apples in store, if you can't grow you own.
Really enjoying your site. Keep up the good work!
Thanks Blair! ~ karen
That’s so cool , I have been amazed these last few years at with the small fruit trees. The regular sized trees are and have been way to large for average home lot considering yes you need 2 in order to get fruit.
I would not do apples though as daughters have reaction to them 😔 .
As for squirrels getting fruit I think some kind of whirl thing on the trunk might work… just a thought…
Hi, any advice for what to do if the main trunk stops. I think I cut it too close and it didn't grow back. If I let a branch on either side grow will they produce lateral branches I can use?
Thanks! Love your posts!
Hi Peggy. I'm not sure what you mean exactly but if you can send me a photo I can take a look and see if I can help. Send it to email@example.com ~ karen!
I love that your espaliered tree is growing along your front porch! What a great use of space. It's just lovely (and delicious, I bet!).
It is when I can get the apples, lol. It's a constant battle with squirrels. ~ karen!