Protect Your Apple Tree Branches From Breaking

Simple homemade wooden supports can help prevent fruit-laden apple tree branches from breaking under the weight of a ripening crop.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

Are your apple trees loaded with fruit? Congratulations, you’re well on your way to enjoying an abundant harvest! Just make sure your trees aren’t so heavily loaded with apples that there’s a danger of branches breaking under the weight.

I’ve seen it happen too many times. A mature apple tree blossoms beautifully in the spring and starts growing hundreds upon hundreds of apples. Efforts to thin the fruit prove insufficient (hobby farmers have a lot of tasks to juggle, after all), and come the end of summer the branches are sagging under tremendous loads of heavy apples.

At that point, all you need is a windy day or a lot of rain to push a branch past its breaking point and—crack! The branch splits and crashes to the ground.

In many cases the branch doesn’t break off entirely. It just peels away from the tree, leaving some wood and bark unbroken. It can be possible to repair these breaks by propping the branch back up with a stake and sealing the wound. But wouldn’t it be better to avoid broken branches entirely?

The Best Solution

Absolutely. The best solution is to thin the fruit early on, shortly after the blossoms have fallen and the apples are just starting to grow. On any given branch, you should aim to leave one apple every 6 inches or so. Thinning in this manner reduces the weight on branches, allows the remaining apples to grow larger, and encourages trees to fruit every year instead of fruiting heavily one year and hardly at all the next.

But if time slips by and you fail to thin the apples sufficiently, you can still take steps to protect against breaking branches. Best of all, it’s fast and free if you have any meaningful woodlands on your farm.

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Support Solutions

My approach is to explore the edges of the woods with my pruning loppers, looking for young trees or low-hanging branches that I can use as homemade wooden support stakes to prop up apple tree branches. Ash trees are my favorite because they’re strong but not too difficult to cut.

They also grow in abundance on my farm and are constantly trying to encroach on fields, so the young trees need to be cut back anyway.

I like to look for young trunks or branches approximately 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick at the bottom of where I’ll cut. I cut them off in sections so that, when they stand upright under an apple tree, they stand a bit higher than the sagging branches I wish to support. Then I remove all the branches from each support stakes except one near the top. This branch I cut so it leaves behind a 2- or 3-inch stub.

I’ll similarly leave a 2- to 3-inch stub at the top of the wooden stake, so that the two stubs form a Y-shaped crotch in which apple tree branches can comfortably rest.

Easy Installation

Once the homemade wooden stakes are ready, installation is easy. I go underneath the apple tree, push the Y-shaped crotch up underneath a sagging branch, and push the branch upward until my support stake is standing more or less upright with its bottom lodged in the ground. Sometimes I have to fine-tune the height of each wooden stake to make it fit, but that’s no problem. I just cut it shorter with my pruning loppers.

And if you don’t have woodlands from which to source the raw materials, you can craft similar support stakes using anything tall and sturdy—lumber, metal T-posts, etc.

It’s fast, it’s simple, and it works well, giving the apple tree branches a boost until harvest time. I’m sure I’ve saved many branches from breaking with this technique. So the next time one of your apple trees is sagging under the weight of its fruit, grab your tools and provide a little extra support.

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