Winter pruning is hard work, but rewarding

— Come mid-February, when the wind is raw and the snow drifts are two feet deep, some kernel of conscious responsibility deep inside pops open: “We have to get pruning the orchard.” We have about 12 acres of apple trees on our farm. The orchard is tiny by wholesale growers’ standards, but it’s a handful for us.

We prune twice a year, late summer and mid-winter. The goals and methods for those two seasons are completely different. In summer we prune out branches that restrict sunlight and airflow to the apples. They need that glorious sunshine and draft to grow sweet and blemish-free. In winter we cut branches back to the trunk to reduce the total number of apples the tree is trying to produce. We save the branches growing at the best angle to receive sunlight. Left to themselves, the trees would produce thousands of apples the size of golf balls -- too small for anyone to enjoy. Left to themselves, apple trees would grow wood, wood and more wood, giving up apple production altogether.

It’s the nature of trees to grow toward the sun. Oak trees, maple, willows, hickories, pines – they all grow straight trunks and lots of wood. It’s a survival instinct, especially in a forest with competition for available resources. With fruit trees, people must cultivate the fruit or it won’t happen. “Wild apples” aren’t ingredients in recipes. No one that I know of shops for "leaves from an apple tree.” The trees must be trained. Branches must be forced to grow at a good angle for light penetration and strength. Ones that shade or crowd other branches must be pruned out. Branches that don’t have fruiting spurs must be cut off to make a spot for a new branch to regenerate.

It’s a lot of work. Hard work.

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