Illustrations by Joseph Smith
We’ve all seen it before: hidden in a thicket is a lone apple tree that hasn’t made more than a bushel of apples in the past 10 years. We know the deer, bears, turkeys, and partridges would like a little something to eat, but what to do?
First, we need to understand that wild apple trees are different from the cultivars (or named varieties) that we eat, such as Macintosh or Cortland. Cultivars are propagated by grafting twigs or buds from the known variety onto another tree or root stock. They are, for lack of a better term, genetic dead ends. A Macintosh tree planted today is genetically identical to a Macintosh tree planted in 1925. Wild apple trees, on the other hand, grow from seed, and every wild tree is a genetically unique apple that has the potential to be tougher and more adapted to local conditions than a cultivar introduced from somewhere else.
Second, consider that the goal of someone pruning for wildlife is different from that of a commercial grower, who wants high-quality fruit that looks appealing on the farmstand or in the grocery store. Animals aren’t concerned with how the fruit looks: if it is dimpled, or if it has worms, sooty blotch, or scab, that’s just fine. They just want lots and lots of it! Fruit is the objective.
Start with an evaluation of the tree. If the tree has not produced fruit in the past few years, your sweat equity will not change that, so move on to one that is known to produce at least some fruit. If more than half the canopy is made of live wood, then maximize the amount of sunlight available to the tree by removing the competing trees, especially to the south of it. This is called releasing the tree, and a healthy tree will often set more fruit just from a release. Apple trees need full sun to make plenty of fruit, so remove all other trees and shrubs back to the tree’s drip line.
The next step is reinvigorating the tree through pruning. Once you’ve given the tree some light, giving it a “haircut” will encourage vigorous new growth. Prune any dead wood, which you can do at any time. To minimize winter injury to the tree, prune live wood in late winter, after the chance of subzero weather has passed. Pruning reawakens the tree’s ability to draw nutrients from the soil, put out new growth, and, over time, grow more apples. Remove a third of the tree’s live wood to reinvigorate it. You can do this one limb at a time, removing smaller, less vigorous competing stems and leaders, or if you have a lot of trees to do, simply cut off the top third of the tree. Sound barbaric? Remember, we’re not looking for perfect orchard tree form – we want fruit, and lots of it. A tree grown from local seed is tougher than any cultivar you have in your orchard and will thrive from such treatment.
After you’ve pruned, give the tree some more nutrients if possible. Spreading manure and compost under trees adds to soil fertility. You can also use fertilizer formulated for fruit trees.
With this kind of attention to your trees, you’ll probably grow enough extra apples to attract some wild visitors and to make some cider for yourself.
Carl Demrow is a trail consultant and carpenter when he’s not busy tending his woodlot in Washington, Vermont.