2018-04-04 / From the Forest

Interior Options

By Ryan Trapani, Director of Forest Services, CFA

Lately, I’ve been stuck somewhere in these Catskill Mountains pruning apple trees. More times than not, I seem to resemble less a pruner and more an insect trapped in the tree’s intricate web of branches, sprouts, limbs, and deadwood. An apple tree’s smaller branches can sometime resemble “barbed wire” that tug on your sweater and hold you fast in position. Sometimes those little branches “load up” and snap you in the face. An apple tree’s revenge I guess for taking the sword to its branches.

Once an apple tree has been “tamed” then I can move around freely like a happy gray squirrel in an acorn-filled oak tree. But, when first accessing some of these wild and neglected trees, I can feel as frustrated as a large black bear stretching out on a small limb for the last apples. Speaking of which, black bears are the worst apple tree pruners in these hills. Most of the trees we inspect or prune have some sort of bear damage: scratches, broken branches, torn limbs, etc.

Dwarfs in the Orchards

In any case, most of the trees we work on are intended to be around for the long haul. In comparison most orchards today are planting dwarf trees. Dwarf trees have a few advantages and disadvantages. Dwarfs begin fully bearing – under ideal conditions – in a few years. They also do not grow as large, which means they demand less pruning. In other words, management of dwarf trees can be more efficient since the tree’s energy is going more towards growing fruit instead of a large woody trunk or branches.

Dwarf trees can also be spaced closer; Orchards in the Hudson Valley are planting dwarf trees on a trellis system using 3-foot spacing. The goal – according to the Hudson Valley Lab – is to manage for about 150 fruit buds (or apples) on each tree.

Trees seldom grow above 10 feet and are tall and spindly. Productivity is supposedly about 25 years, plus or minus. Orchards of this type are the future for commercial use. Although they are capital intensive since dwarfs must be fenced in from the deer and trellised using wires to hold them erect, they involve far less labor and time waiting for a crop.

Standards in the Landscape

On the other end are semi-dwarf and standard apple trees. Semi-dwarfs are somewhere between dwarfs and standards in size. Most semi-dwarfs do not require staking. Standards can become large trees, over 30 feet if you let them go in some locations. Both sizes require more pruning or labor to keep in check.

However, they are longer lasting, hardier, and can resemble “traditional” apple trees most of us grew up with or are used to. To me, an outstretching apple tree containing well-spaced and shapely limbs ready for decades of fruit-bearing is most beautiful. Standards are often planted or tended with the intention as a “fixture” in the landscape, something planted for your kids and their kids to enjoy, or whoever. I’ve been to people’s houses that have photos of their grandparents (now in their 90s) playing in old apple trees as kids; Those apple trees still remain and some date back to the mid-1800s.

Standard apple trees represent some of these mountains’ most perennial fruit-bearing plants. However, in order to last as long as they do, these trees must devote an ample amount of energy towards woody growth. Diameter of some limbs can be 10 inches, while the trunk can be over 20 inches. In other words, many of these old standard trees are quite large, both in width and height.

Although apple trees can grow large, it’s often at their demise. Heavy snow loads, wind, and heavy black bears end up cracking or breaking these lanky and large limbs that stretch far and wide to make room for sun loving fruit buds near the tops and edges of the tree. When large branches break, it can spell disaster for a large portion of that tree.

Leave Some Sprouts

That’s why I think it’s important to keep your “interior options” open. On many of these large trees are old sprouts growing near the center of the tree or along the branch. Water sprouts that aren’t competing with fruit buds can be left in place, especially if they’re smaller than ½ to ¾ inches. Anything smaller than this should be left. These small sprouts are often removed by owners for aesthetic appeal. However, if not competing with permanent fruit-bearing branches they can serve as renewal branches to “start over” when a larger branch beyond it cracks, or begins to desiccate and die.

In many cases, larger apple trees are simply too high and are extremely susceptible to toppling over or cracking. These sprouts lower down in the crown can be used to reduce the tree back to a more stable and manageable size. Lastly, smaller sprouts help keep those long and large woody limbs alive and pumping water and nutrients.

Remember, the tree has to transport water and nutrients all the way to the terminal branch ends; those leaves on those tiny sprouts provide food. Some of the trees we see have had all the sprouts removed from near the branch tips to the trunk.

Although aesthetically the tree looks “clean,” many of those limbs are experiencing desiccation and die-back; maybe from too much sun, or not enough photosynthesis to sustain the branch. More research is needed in this area. On branches that fail (or break) and have no interior sprouts, often the only option is to remove the entire branch. If more severe, then the entire tree.

In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff. Leave water sprouts less than ½” in diameter. Worry about larger limbs that are “out of place” first. The water sprouts provide needed energy for these large, old trees and a future option in case catastrophe hits. www.catskillforest.org

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