Venturing out on my first horticultural visit of the year, last Saturday I headed for Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection just outside Faversham in Kent. February being an ideal time to prune apple trees, my purpose was to attend a pruning demonstration, whereby a large Bramley apple tree left unpruned for the last six years would be re-shaped.
Bramley’s Seedling is still one of the UK’s best known cooking apples. The original tree was raised in 1809 from seed planted by a young girl Mary Ann Brailsford in her Nottinghamshire cottage garden. By the 1840s the cottage (and apple tree) were owned by one Matthew Bramley, a butcher, who allowed cuttings to be taken for commercial propagation by local nurseryman Henry Merryweather on condition that the trees bore his name.
The Bramley apple tree produces delicious fruit, but has some special requirements for successful cultivation. They are vigorous trees, needing a large space to grow well and are triploids meaning that they need two separate apple varieties nearby to ensure successful pollination.
The Bramley apple tree that greeted us at Brogdale was a confusing prospect – tall, asymmetric, with an over-abundance of sprawling branches. It was clear that pruning was required, but how to begin with such a tangle of growth?
Our guide, the horticulturalist and fruit tree specialist John Easton encouraged us to stand back from the tree, walk around it and examine it from every angle. We should also try to imagine the tree as it might appear from above – ideally up to five major branches would radiate out like the spokes of a wheel.
John identified two main problems with the tree. There were large branches shading the centre of the tree, preventing new shoots from developing, (which would eventually form a framework of new branches). The tree also had too many lateral shoots, causing the tree to be very congested.
We were then asked to suggest which large branches should come out, and after some deliberation, these branches were marked with tape at their junction with the trunk of the tree. John emphasised the importance of sticking to a decision about removing branches as a loss of confidence half way through the process could result in a tree that was unbalanced.
Using both a small hand held chainsaw and a pole mounted chainsaw, Martin (John’s assistant for the day) started to remove branches. John then used a pruning saw and secateurs to thin growth on the branches that we’d decided to keep and raise the level of the lowest of these so the crop would not be splashed with soil and the grass beneath could be mown easily. Under John’s guidance Martin next removed a vast quantity of 5 year old upright shoots from the centre of the tree, leaving those remaining with enough space to develop and bear fruit.
The pruned tree still had a wide spread, and while it might be tempting to tidy away the tips of the branches to make the tree neater, John explained why this should be avoided in a Bramley. As a partial tip-bearer, fruit is produced at the ends of the branches, and also on short spurs that appear along the fruiting laterals. As new, upright shoots develop the weight of the apple crop has the effect of ‘bringing down’ the branches which are quite flexible. But if the ends are removed this has a stiffening effect on the branch and interrupts the growth pattern of tree.
Finally, John explained the current thinking about the treatment of watershoots, which spring up in great numbers on the main branches and sometimes the tree trunk, where the sap flow is at its greatest. Rather than remove them all (for aesthetic purposes) he suggested removing a third entirely with a saw, cutting a third back to around three inches with a secateurs and bending in the final third to curtail their upward growth. He explained that the roughness of the saw cut damaged the tree cells more than a cleaner cut with secateurs, and stopped re-growth more effectively.
Ideally apple trees should be pruned on a three year cycle with a maximum of one third of the growth removed at any one time. John emphasised the importance of knowing when to stop – although there were more laterals that he could have removed, the danger of damaging the tree after the major work he had carried out was too great. And so it being time, as John put it, to ‘walk away from the tree’ we finished our day.
Brogdale Collections – home of the National Fruit Collection including over 2000 apple varieties
The Bramley Seedling Apple – the history of this much loved tree on Wikipedia
Oh my! That tree was a mess! It was pruned very differently from how I would have done it, with more of the smaller branches pruned out, but the remaining branches not pruned back. I prune everything back so the limbs can support the weight of the fruit. Leaving more smaller stems spreads the production out somewhat. My trees do not have all the spurs that this one has. (They are visible in the pictures even at a distance!) If they did, I might not leave so much of the smaller branches. I need to prune back an abandoned pippin apple that my grandmother got fruit from in the 1950s. My concern is that once it is renovated again, it will need to be pruned regularly afterward. If I leave it abandoned, it should not get any worse. I really want to prune it, but do not want to be obligated to maintain it, or trust someone else to maintain it.