Pruning the spurry beasts

The heading is misleading, because the real apple beasts are varieties that push out too much upright wood and encourage excessive winter pruning which can create a vicious cycle of excessive vegetation- but it was too close to furry beasts to resist.

I’m writing here about pruning free standing apple trees on vigorous rootstocks, where the lion’s share of my experience lies. It also strongly applies to pears- Asian and European, both of which can succumb to spurring up to the point of inadequate vegetative growth. I’ve also used this approach with apple trees on M26, grown without irrigation in thin soils, which will often runt out in these conditions, no matter the variety.

What a fruit grower strives for is moderate growth and moderate growth relies on a certain amount of upright vegetative shoots being retained on trees every season. Often these shoots are the sources of the trees best fruit on their (the shoots) second or even third year, with flower blossoms forming on the oldest part of 2 or 3 year old wood. These shoots also serve the growing fruit nearby and send some energy to serve the wood and roots below.

The other day I was pruning a Braeburn apple standing next to a Northern Spy. The trees are in about their 13th leaf, growing in sod in a rich, somewhat excessively wet (because of sand subsoil) clay loam. Even with the competing sod, the trees tend to grow very vigorously here once established- most are on 111 rootstock, as are these two trees. These two varieties have opposite growth habits- Braeburn lives to grow fruit and N. Spy to grow wood- at least when young.

Managing their growth is so different that they may as well be distinct species. I will briefly discuss the N. Spy later but the Braeburn is the spur monster this topic is primarily about. These variety types usually must be pruned to coax more vigor, which means cutting back wood to vigorous upright shoots whenever possible and removing lots of small, hanging wood (which often produces small, low quality fruit and saps energy from the tree). Branches weighted down in the previous season by crop to below horizontal, especially in the lower first tier of scaffolds, need to be pruned back to a vigorous upright, even if it means cutting the branch back further than you would otherwise want.

When a spur monster succumbs to excessive spurring that leads to inadequate production of fresh growth, which can happen on stressed (too much crop of not enough water) young apple trees or declining aged ones and often occurs with pears, especially Asians, you have to remove a lot of the knobby spur growth and as much wood growing below horizontal as you feel safe to do. Supplementary N. and irrigation may be helpful, and removing all flower buds for a season. Asian pears routinely produce excessive spur wood and way too much fruit, so I routinely remove a percentage of spur wood from them, even as they are growing well. Sometimes pears only produce a few excessively vigorous shoots and little moderately vigorous ones. This is the one case where I will stub cut into annual wood.

As far as the wood monsters such as N. Spy, I find it useful to immediately remove all branches more than a third the diameter of the trunk for the first several years quite helpful. By the fourth year I tape uprights coming off the scaffolds to temporary scaffolds, bending them to near horizontal. Second and third tier wood I will often tape or otherwise pull down to a weep. Scoring also helps, especially to calm down the top of the tree, where you use a sharp pruning saw just above the first tier, cutting through cambium into the surface of sapwood. I cut half way around and go up a few inches to do the other side of the trunk. This is best done around bloom. Sometimes I cut vigorous uprights back to 2 year wood, especially if there are flower buds on them. Stub cuts back to older wood is not vegetatively stimulating in the way cutting into 1-year wood is.

Michael has posted that he gets great results from his espaliers on vigorous rootstocks by cutting back new shoots a few times during the summer, immediately transferring them into fruiting wood. Sometime I would like to try this on a vigorous free standing tree, where it is bound to work as well, although I’ve only heard of the method being used on espaliers.


Thanks for the informative post Alan. I am just now learning how to deal with the spur monster, for me the worst one is Blenheim Orange. The tree has weeped so much that nearly all the apples are within deer reach and I lose most of the crop. I have been very reluctant to remove spur wood but on that tree I decided I had to be brutal to get it going more up. GoldRush is also pretty bad, I have it in a biennial mode unfortunately and when it sets it really sets and weighs things down too much. I am now removing most of the below-vertical wood I find on such trees.

I don’t have Spy but I have Spigold and it has the same problems as Spy does. I have used your score-and-bend technique on several triploids to bend the limbs to more horizontal. The shoots are so big that bending alone will not get it low enough, but score-and-bend does the job.

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I should have mentioned that having an adequate quantity of annual upright shoots helps induce annual bearing- it is all about a trees bank account of energy. Plus just as important as thinning fruit and spurwood for annual bearing is getting and keeping enough light on spur and fruit shoot leaves. After a few weeks in the shade, apple leaves permanently lose their ability to photosynthate. I’ve decided that mid spring pruning of unneeded new growth is the ticket with home growers to alleviate biennial bearing. If you wait until summer it will likely be too late to get most benefits beyond fruit color.

This is a great topic, Alan. Thanks! Your suggestions for spurry beasts will help me with a couple of Asian pears that have been surprisingly reluctant growers. I’ve got a question about reinvigorating a runted Orlean’s Reinette. This tree was abused in it’s early life, by me initially through underwatering and later by deer when it was the favorite “eat me” apple tree in my orchard. Ultimately I pruned it hard four years ago (had yet to crop for me) and saw refreshed growth for a couple of seasons. I then allowed it to crop the past two years…too much, as it turns out, because while I saw maybe 12" of new growth in 2015 carrying a heavier crop, I saw almost no new growth last year - between 2"- 5" on the few limbs that pushed any non-fruiting wood at all. The tree is 5’ tall.

I’m hoping that I can stimulate better growth this season without radically cutting it back again. I’d also like to keep a handful of apples, because it’s my favorite variety, but I’ll sacrifice if I have to tears up as he writes this. Average growth in my thin soils is much less than what I see from most posters on this forum. After reading your initial post, it seems clear that I need to thin the fruiting spurs. There is one low growing branch that I’m taking off (the lowest branch on the left side of the photo) but there really aren’t any other obvious choices to remove except for any spurs growing downward and general thinning of remaining spurs, as needed. I’ll also feed it with a high nitrogen fertilizer, perhaps some well-rotted chicken poop.

Is there anything else you’d recommend? I keep my trees at 8’, so I don’t need radical growth, but growth that moves this tree in that direction without first lopping a couple of feet off the top would be my preferred option.

Here’s the tree. Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

One thing I always do when growing trees on a slope is to pull a lot of soil from above to flatten or even concave (in droughty soils) at least a 5’ diameter area. Steep slopes don’t catch water well, whether from irrigation or rain. Never let the tree suffer from drought before mid-summer if you can help it, although best to keep it watered all the way through when you are trying to grow wood.

Obviously the tree has far more spurs than needed- start by removing every single hanger on the branches undersides. Where you have vegetative wood with a spur at the base- remove the spur. Sometimes I just strip off flower buds, even when trees are dormant. Of course, thinning spurs removes two seasons of flowers. Forming flowers takes a great deal of energy- so fruit is a 2-year energy suck. .

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Thanks, Alan. I’m embarking on the leveling project as soon as the snow melts and the ground thaws. I never thought about that as part of the slow growth issue I deal with, but have been planning to terrace the orchard anyway so it’s not so damn difficult to deal with as I age.

The orchard has been on drip for years now. The water issues came early in my planting career when I just had to get trees in the ground ASAP and before I did a very good job prepping the site because it takes years for fruit to come and I’d easily get the drip in before water stressing the trees, right? Live and learn. It’s very difficult to grow anything not drought resistant here without supplemental water. The rest of your advice will be easy to implement. Thanks again.

I just wanted to revive this thread because I found @alan‘s recommendations above very helpful and wanted to get some input on my tree that falls in this category. It’s a Braeburn in its 4th leaf and it has an incredible amount of flowers/ spur wood. I haven’t really had a big issue with it runting out yet ( it’s about 6 feet tall), but Would it still be recommended to remove all of the downward growing spurs to avoid issues down the road?

Braeburn is one that tends toward excessive spurring and I like to see more pencils to feed the fruit than what is on your tree, but I grow trees on minimum M7 vigor roots- mostly 111.

30 leaves to make a high quality fruit. Each flower cluster is capable of producing about 3 fruit. For trees like that I thin a lot of the flower clusters in my own orchard, mostly my Goldrush, to help assure annual cropping.

I’m seeing quite a few forked branches on that tree. I like to train scaffolds like sideways growing central leader trees. With Braeburn, 4 scaffolds to an open center tree is about right- don’t let them fork into nearly equal diameter codoiminants. I’d remove the surplus now and it might encourage the tree to grow some pencils for you.

But I do need to know the rootstock.

Excellent… your feedback is very valuable and appreciated.

As a new pruner I’m learning to suppress my fears that I won’t have enough scaffolds to fill the space… when I planted this tree I knew that 4 was a good number, but when I looked at the little first year tree it was (and for me, continues to be) hard to believe that the 4 twiggy branches will be enough.

So in this case I left 6… 3 of which have early forks as you describe, which I now realize might as well be scaffolds themselves… which puts it to 9. Excessive.

The root stock is M-111, with my goal being to keep the tree to 10 ft or so. So, while fear of not having enough branches was the main motivator, a secondary thought was that maybe having more codominant growth points at the top of the tree would limit the final height somewhat.

Again, thanks for your input, it’s very rewarding to learn more about the skill (art) of pruning and then put the knowledge into practice and get the feedback from the tree.

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Also, your use of the word “pencil” is helpful… I can picture what you mean.

The idea that a scaffold is like a sideways growing central leader tree is also a very helpful thought that will help me going forward.

Even for a Braebern, I’m surprised it is growing like that on 111. It looks like a tree on dwarfing rootstock, which concerns me a little bit, although, if it gives you a nice crop of decent sized apples this season, I’m sure you will be happy.

The concern is just about what is causing the tree to dwarf- perhaps it is the result of severe deficit irrigation, or maybe the tree was kept in a pot long enough to become an full fledged adult is is now focused on having babies.

What is the branch spread of the tree?

I just checked and the total spread is 6ft and the height is 5 ft.

It was a bare root tree and I cut it down to about 2 ft above the graft union at planting (I have since learned that this is not the way to go at my site because the deer are voracious). I pruned it back to a couple feet of growth the winter after the first growing season and then to about a foot of new growth after each the following 2 growing seasons.

It has definitely been stressed for water the last two summers, and we’ve also had long smoky stretches the last couple of years as well. You mentioned above that after a period of time without sun, apple leaves lose their ability to generate energy… I wonder if a couple weeks of Smokey weather could have a stunting effect?

I don’t think a couple weeks a smoky weather would block light to the point where it would cause noticeable problems- as long as it didn’t block more than half of the light. At about 70% shade, leaves begin to cost a tree more energy than they produce. I don’t know if it has been established at what level of shade chloroplasts are killed but I doubt if it’s known with any precision.

I think you’ve probably dwarfed your tree with drought. Just remember that each apple needs about 30 leaves for itself. Be sure to thin mercilessly until you approach that ratio. Otherwise you will be locked in a cycle of excessive production of small low quality fruit an inadequate vegetative growth.

If you can, make sure the tree has enough water until about mid-June at least. Summer drought is not as dwarfing as spring drought for apples.

Sounds good. Here’s my plan to try to ramp up some vegetative growth:

  1. remove some forked branches
  2. remove some spurs, especially those growing downward
  3. give it some nitrogen
  4. keep it watered at least through the spring
  5. thin like there’s no tomorrow - 30:1 leaf:fruit ratio in mind

Thanks again for taking the time. Hopefully this dialog will help someone else who comes across it as much as it’s helping me!

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