Time to prune apple trees

Somehow I’ve managed to put my back out, I’ve not suffered with back pain before. I’m not comforted by friends who tell me that once hit it reoccurs and that gardening is one of the worst activities for those who suffer. So digging is out and standing up pruning is in! I would never claim to be an expert apple tree pruner; I’m more a trial and error, common sense tidier. I don’t worry too much about technique and I seem to manage the desired result, tidy trees with beautiful blossom in spring and delicious fruit come late summer/ autumn.

Pruned apple treesSome of my apple trees after pruning, I’ve just got to collect up the debris now!

I think there are just a few things to keep in mind when pruning apple trees.

Why do we bother to prune:

  • To keep the apple tree a manageable shape and size so you can reach the fruit. Most apple trees these days are grafted onto dwarf rootstock (M9 or M27) resulting in trees that are 1.5m to 2m tall. Old large trees tend to be on far more vigorous rootstock which is much harder to maintain.
  • Increase apple productivity.

Apples on the treeLast years bumper crop of apples

  • To reduce disease. Apple trees have a tendency to be sickly specimens, they’re commonly susceptible to canker, scab, brown rot and honey fungus. Living in the heart of Kent’s apple orchards, I’ve noticed that all farmers spray their trees, ensuring a healthy crop for market, even the local organic apple farmer’s spray with potions certified by the soil association. In a domestic garden spraying is not really an option many of us would consider. The best way to deal with disease is firstly, accept you’ll have some, and secondly pruning, it increases air circulation around the tree blowing unhealthy spores away, it will also make the tree stronger, healthier and in turn more resistant to the disease.

How to prune:

  • Prune when the tree is dormant (no leaves on it Nov/Dec – March), unless you have espalier trees.
  • Make clean cuts at an angle so the rain can run off and not settle encouraging rot. To achieve this you will need a simple selection of sharp tools, secateurs for year old wood, loppers for branches the thickness of your finger and a pruning saw for the larger branches. Using the right tools will help you to get clean cuts; messy cuts are breeding grounds for disease.

A clean angled apple branch cutA clean angle cut, prventing rain from settleing and disease moving in.

Old apple pruning scarAn old horizontal pruning scar, now a little pool of winter water rottting into the trunk, I fear this lovely old trees day’s are numbered!

Tools for pruningUseful tools for pruning, sharp secateurs, pruning saw and loppers

  • Magazines and books on the subject will all tell you a simple easy rule to remember, the three D’s, cut out Dead, Diseased and Damaged wood. Also cut out branches that cross, they will rub together and become damaged, then diseased and finally dead!

Dead appple wood amonst health whipsSome dead wood that needs removing

Mummified appleRemove any mummified fruit, as with all diseased wood don’t compost, burn or discard

  • Aim to have horizontal branches spurring off from the main truck (if you squint it should form the shape of a tea cup!) and a flat top to the tree. Every year you will have many vigorous whips that can shot up 75cm seeking the light in a season, these all need to be cut out.

Apple tree before pruningA apple tree before pruning, note all the year old whips that are shooting up to the sky

Apple tree before pruningThe same tree after pruning, it might look brutal but there are lots of fruit buds waiting to blossom in the next few months

  • Become familiar with what a fruiting bud looks like, they are the plump curved buds, new wood or growth buds are far smaller and more pointed. Once you’ve worked out what the fruit buds look like you can make sure you don’t chop them all off in your pruning quest.

Apple tree fruit bearing budsPlump fruiting buds on one of the apple trees

New wood or growth buds on an apple treeNew wood or growth buds

  • If you have a tree that has not been pruned for years, you’ll probably need to cut a lot of wood out to achieve a desired shape, this will result in a poor harvest but you can console yourself with the thought that future pruning will be far quicker and easier and your apple harvests in years to come, healthier and more productive.

So if you’re not a regular pruner, have a go it’s well worth the initial effort, don’t worry if you make mistakes, they’re lessons to be learnt, the worst that can happen is a few less apples this year. A lesson for myself is to prune in December, as I under plant the trees with spring bulbs for cutting, tip toeing with a bad back around daffodils has proved to be tricky!

A week in February

A friend passed on a Facebook challenge to post a nature photograph every day for a week. It has been great fun and a lovely snap shot of a week in February. Below is the compilation of the weeks posts.

Day 1 Hardy Cyclamen leaves growing under a tree in our garden, I think the leaves are more striking than their beautiful flowers.

Hardy Cyclamen

Day 2 Lichen growing on our Crabapple tree. I love the rich mustard yellow colour of lichen.


Day 3 Broad bean flowers in February, I find that as disturbing as daffodils blooming in December!

Broadbean flowers

Day 4 Artichoke leaves. Young silver leaves with the texture of velvet, an opulent, statuesque must have for every garden. The globes they produce are a summer delicacy, the leaves look fabulous cut and placed in a vase in the kitchen.

Artichoke leaves

Day 5 Our oak tree on this frosty morning. This beautiful majestic oak is the focal point of our garden, it’s the home to many birds, my barometer of the seasons and it’s bows the anchor for my boys treasured rope swing.

Oak tree in frost

Day 6 Muscari (Grape hyacinth). One of my favourite early sping (!) cut flowers.

Muscari (Grape hyacinth)

Day 7 Some daffodils cut for the table. They may be early this year but their stems are weak, breaking under the weight of their blooms in the rain.

Daffoldils on the table


Hellebores are in full bloom. They’re the sophisticated, slightly shy understated belle of the ball. Hellebore colours are tastefully muted and absolutely stunning, nature has an amazing knack of creating the most perfect colours, not even a Farrow & Ball or Little Greene paint colour chart has a patch on the real thing! To fully appreciate their perfect profiles you need to lift their shy heads up to reveal their complete beauty. They’re a fabulous cut flower at this time of year, instead of popping them in a vase, float them in a bowl to display them at their best.

Hellebores in a bowlHellebores a fabulous cut flower floating in a bowl, fingers crossed the husband not after his pestle and mortar in the next few days!

There were no hellebores in the garden when we moved here; I brought some seedlings with me which are now rewarding me with their gorgeous flowers. Keep an eye out when weeding around Hellebores, they’re generous self seeders. I just dig up the seedlings and replant them somewhere in dappled shade; they will flower in two years time, well worth the wait as sometimes they’re the same as the parent plant but often a completely different colour and form.

White HelleboreA White Hellebore

Pink HelleborePretty pink Hellebores

Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus), a great acid green colour, yet to noticed the smell

Winter salad

A daily harvest of cut and come again salad leaves from the garden is one of the great pleasures of growing your own produce. Not only do you get beautiful fresh salad, there’s a fabulous range of flavours available from seed which you won’t get in the supermarket. It’s also really easy to grow and as you pick the leaves more shoot up giving you a constant supply. Until this winter, home grown salad was one of the joys of my garden from May to October; I turned to bags of salad from the shop in the cooler months. Last autumn I decided to experiment and see if I could grow year round salad.

Cut winter saladSome Rocket just cut from the garden

I sowed several rows outside in my raised vegetable beds and in the greenhouse directly on the earth. The salad seed sown outside was a complete disaster, I sowed in October, the seed packet did suggest September so maybe an earlier sowing or a cloche would have helped. In complete contrast the salad in the greenhouse has been a great success, providing me with daily lunches and sandwich fillers all winter. The crop quality is fabulous, far better than my summer Mizuna salad that has a tendency to suffer pin prick holes in its leaves due to flea beetle (must confess it gets a good wash and we eat it anyway!).

Rocket growing in the greenhouseRocket growing in the greenhouse

My winter salad selections were Rocket, an essential in our kitchen as a side salad or an added flavour boost to a lunchtime sandwich, and a spicy oriental salad leaf mix containing Pak Choi, Mizuna, Mustard Red Giant, Mustard Golden Streaks and Salad Rocket. This has been a really tasty mix, the baby leaves are packed with flavour, you can also use them in stir-fry’s. I will sow a few more rows in the greenhouse which will see me through to May, when I’ll start cropping salad from outside. It’s satisfying to know I’ll never need to buy supermarket salad again.

Oriental salad growingOriental salad mix growing in the greenhouse


It’s February and the snowdrops are in full bloom, I am no galanthophile, but I do have a beautiful colony of tiny pure white beauties, they pirouette delicately in the breeze under our oak tree. On a bright sunny day they’re one of the great winter wonders of the garden.

Snowdrops 3

Snowdrops 2