Apple Tree Project: Pruning and Topworking

This apple tree is by far the ugliest tree in my garden. We bought our house four years ago, and this apple tree already was there: unnamed, unformed, unpruned. It was about the same size as it’s now, maybe a little bit smaller. Initially, we only put it on drip irrigation, along with other plants. For first three years it was in heavy shade from a nearby pepper tree, that’s most probably why it became so leggy. We removed the pepper tree about a year ago, and that was the first time I pruned the apple tree (removing watersprouts and heading back some very long shoots).

The apple tree bloomed each year and produced from a half dozen to a dozen of fruits; however ground squirrels (or some other critters) stole all apples when they were still green and small, about a golf ball size (we’ve mostly eradicated the ground squirrel population since the last year). Since we never got any ripe fruit from this tree, I don’t know the variety. Most probably, it’s something that a local Home Depot would sell. I also don’t know what the rootstock is. Apparently it’s semi-dwarfing and also suckers quite a lot.

Problems and Photos:
The tree’s shape is terrible. First, it has a very strange growth habit (see photos): some branches grow horizontally and even downward, while others shoot to the sky.

View from north:

View from south:

View from west:

Second, some of the main scaffold branches are too thick for the trunk:

Finally, a second trunk starts right above the graft union:

Solutions and Questions:
I think that the tree needs to be radically reworked and reshaped. However, I’m not sure exactly what to do. Some things I want to do:

  1. The second trunk needs to be removed. Please let me know if that’s correct.

  2. One or both of the two lowest scaffold branches (those that grow horizontally) need to be either completely removed or topworked close to the main trunk.

  3. The top scaffold branches (those that grow more vertically) need to be topworked (either at main scaffolds near the trunk or at secondary scaffolds).

  4. How should I topwork the tree:

  • At the main trunk (3-4 bark grafts),
  • At main scaffolds (4-6 cleft grafts),
  • At secondary scaffolds (10-12 cleft grafts),
  • Other.
    I like the idea of a Frankentree, but am not sure whether it’s advisable to make too many grafts all at once.
  1. When is the best time to graft? I’m in the northern part of California’s Central Valley, just east of the SF Bay Area. Early bloomers — pluots, early apricots and peaches — started blooming here about 3-4 days ago, but apples are still dormant. This week high temperatures were in low-to-mid 70s, next week we expect mid-60s, and then low-to-mid 70s week after that.

  2. I have a bunch of scionwood varieties (one or two sticks of each), mostly from CRFG exchanges:

  • Arkansas Black
  • Belle de Boskoop
  • Bramley’s Seedling
  • Cripp’s Pink
  • Esopus Spitzenburg
  • Fuji
  • Gala
  • Golden Delicious
  • Gravenstein
  • Honeycrisp
  • Hudson’s Golden Gem
  • Jonagold
  • King David
  • Lady Williams
  • Wickson Crabapple
    Which varieties you recommend I should graft? Which are more vigorous (should go to the north side) and which are less vigorous (should go to the south side)?

I have very little experience with apples (most of what I know I read on this forum), so I would appreciate any comments and suggestions. Thank you very much in advance.

I would shape it up a bit as you mentioned when you top work it to look something like the picture below (you need to use your imagination a bit since I’m not much of an artist). As far as varieties go someone from California will be far better suited to provide you advice on that. Those grafts will shoot up fast and the tree will take shape quickly.

Here is a video discussing the concept
Here is a video demonstrating the method


Looks like a decent canvas for a frankentree. I would agree with you on taking out the branch just above the graft, not only does it compete with the main trunk but the crotch angle is extremely narrow. As for when to graft, I’ve always had the best luck waiting until the leaves start opening up, then you know the sap is really flowing.
Once you remove the lowest branch you will be left with a whole side of the tree with no scaffolds. I would fear that a bark graft would produce too narrow crotch angle also so I might try something like this.

I never saw the grafting with a pencil sharpener concept. Got to try that it looks fun.

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Gravenstein, Honeycrisp, and Cripps Pink Lady should do well for you, and they are among the best.

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Gala is vigorous for me. It is on M27 and always wants to shoot to 10 ft tall by the middle of summer and refuses to fruit more. I should have tied these shoots down but left them to grow upward in order to give me nice branches to create a Frankentree.

I was actually busy grafting a few varieties onto it, hoping the warm weather these few days will speed up the callus formation.

This is another option. Get rid of the lower limb and pull the trunk up into a more upright position. Then I would add side grafts of a few select varieties to the side without limbs. This will get you started with your multi variety tree. Below is a side graft example that I have used several times to get limbs started where I want them. Bill

pic 001


The tree looks so funky because it was in so much shade. It grew to the light. Now that it is in more light it doesn’t have to grow to it (hopefully).

So you don’t want to try the cultivar?

Remove bottom branch near graft union.

As for the rest, top working main trunk. The trunk diameter will be small enough I doubt you will get more than two (maybe three) scions on that trunk, so hopefully at least one will take. Keep the strongest one later on if more than one takes and remove the rest (other).

That tree as you noted has terrible form and a infection(?). I would not think it a great candidate for a frankentree.

As for best, fortunately since these are local scions hopefully they are from people who have successfully fruited them in your area and like them. I’d look for one that will be a good storage apple. Be nice if it hanged well on the tree. Even though the cultivars you grow at home are sadly superior fruit (often quite a bit so) to the fruit you buy in the store it might make sense to avoid ones available in the store.

Your tagline says multiple apple trees: If so, then select one that ripens at a different time from the others.

I am bothered by the dark spot under that branch. Looks like a wound with bacterial spread under the bark. If so, I’d top work a foot below it. You’d be the person to evaluate what that is based upon history and know apple diseases/pests in your area.

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Clark, thanks a lot for the picture! It describes your suggestion very well.

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Z9, thanks for your comment! I have another apple tree – a multigraft on M111 with 4 varieties, and Gala is the weakest branch, while Fuji is the strongest. Anyway, I would prefer to have more different varieties on the trees.

Bill, thank you very much for the side graft idea. One question: normally, a side grafts would be put on a smaller branch and the recipient branch will be eventually cut off above the graft. Do you have experience putting a side graft on the main trunk and not cutting the trunk off above the graft?

FN, thanks for your comments! The the dark spot on the bark is completely benign, this is just some black pruning sealer that I put on innocent bark cracks a few years back when I didn’t know better. As far as I can tell, the tree is completely disease free.

When one constructs a free standing apple tree it is generally a more profitable endeavor in the long term to take the long view, IMO. And my opinion is based on the results of years of impatience followed now by even more years of something like patience.

A trunks purpose is to hold subdominant scaffold branches. The scaffold branches purpose is to hold and dominate the thinner fruit bearing smaller wood emanating from it.

The way you keep scaffold branches (and secondary to scaffolds) subdominant to the trunk is by eliminating excessive diameter branches and spreading excessively upright ones.

Anything more than half the diameter of its dominant connection at the point of that connection is best removed. Ultimately, subdominant branches are best at not more than a third the diameter- especially with scaffolds to trunk.

If that was my tree I would not only eliminate the oversized scaffolds, I would also straighten the trunk with heavy taping (vinyl electric tape) to a strong piece of electric conduit- cutting hinges in the crooks to help bend it straight if necessary.

I’d worry about grafting next year when there will presumably be plenty of vigorous fresh shoots to graft to. Ultimately it will be about the same amount of time to harvest and you will end up with a beautiful tree that is much easier to manage and more productive of fruit…


This is how I would deal with this tree. I’m guessing that no two people would prune it the same way and most would work well. If you remove these limbs that are marked the tree should react accordingly with heavy growth this spring and summer. After looking at the tree closer you might already have a few small side limb which could easily be grafted to your desired varieties. Cutting back like this will delay fruiting a little but it looks like it will help you reach your ultimate goal of having many different types of apple on one tree. When you have several apple varieties on one tree you most certainly will have different vigor levels to contend with and proper pruning to keep them balanced will be important. This is how I would work this tree over. Hopefully several other will give information that will help. Then you will have to select what method you like. Bill

pic 001


Thank you Bill, this seems like a very good suggestion. Should I expect vigorous new growth from the main trunk after such significant pruning?

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I would think you would get some heavy new growth. If it were my tree I would also take off about 1’ from the top. Hopefully all this pruning will push out some side limbs where you want them. Keep in mind that if you have more growth on one side these branches can be tipped to promote more even growth in other desired areas. These are just my opinions on what should be done. In most cases there are many ways to get to a similar place. I would look at this tree as a learning experience more than just getting it perfect if there is such a thing. Good luck with it. Bill

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Thank you very much Bill, this is very helpful.

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