PHOTO: Daniel Johnson
July 31, 2018

There’s something very picturesque and pleasant about an orchard full of mature apple trees. I’m particularly fond of full-size, nondwarf trees that grow large with unusual shapes and lots of low, sweeping branches.

Of course, an orchard is most picturesque when the grass around and between the trees is carefully mowed and manicured—it’s a lot more pleasant to pick apples in a yard-like environment than to pick them while tromping through grass that’s three feet tall.

Unfortunately, the way apple trees like to grow—with low-hanging branches that can come quite close to the ground when bearing full loads of fruit—means that mowing your orchard can be a challenging task. Aboard a riding mower, you’ll find yourself constantly ducking underneath branches, which can be so low that a riding mower isn’t an option. Instead, you’ll have to carefully weave your way under the trees with something like a string trimmer, which can be quite difficult.

I’m generally fond of low-hanging apple branches (they make it easy to pick fruit by hand), yet if trees with such branches are large enough, you should consider pruning off their lowest limbs so that your mowing job will be easier (and safer). You don’t even need much in the way of tools—a chainsaw is definitely overkill. A simple pair of pruning loppers for the smaller branches, plus a pruning saw for any larger ones, is probably all you need.

Suffice it to say, I’ve pruned many apple trees this way through the years, and while it can feel like a big mistake at the time (“Look at all these beautiful apple-bearing branches I’ve cut off!”), when you’re done you’ll appreciate having the tree in a more manageable state.

Truth be told, it really doesn’t take much pruning to make a huge difference. Because they’re so shaded by the upper portions of the tree, large sections of the lowest branches are often dead anyway, so you can quickly make a difference without cutting a single live branch. Furthermore, removing these dead sections can lighten the load on the live branches, letting them spring back up a bit—perhaps even enough so they no longer block or complicate your mowing.

Even if you do prune live branches, I say don’t hesitate. If you worry that it will dramatically change the tree’s appearance, never fear—actually, I’ve found that the trees usually look much tidier and healthier after pruning the lower branches. Furthermore, you don’t have to cut off entire branches if you don’t want to—they usually originate from higher up on the trunk and sag downward as they reach outward, so pruning the branches back to a point where they won’t get in your way is often all you need to do.

When it’s all said and done, your orchard—whether it comprises a single tree or dozens—will present a much cleaner appearance, and the task of keeping it mowed will be delightfully simple. Just be warned: The branches grow back fast, and you might need to prune again in the very near future.

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