When an apple tree bends, it could break! Photo: Indie452, reddit.com
Question: I have a 5-year-old apple tree that is currently chock full of apples. However, it’s begun heavily leaning to one side due to the weight of the fruit. Do I need to stake it?
Answer: That’s one possibility. Another is to use one or two solid forked branches (harvested elsewhere) as crutches, lifting and bracing the heaviest branches.
However, before carrying out either step, have you considered thinning the fruit?
Orchard owners do this on a regular basis. The idea is to remove excess fruit, the weight of which can cause the trunk or branches to bend or even tear off. Also, when apples are too dense, the fruits stay smaller and are more prone to disease and insects. As well, when the tree bears too much fruit, many apples end up aborting and falling off anyway as the summer goes on.
Also, by “lightening” the tree of its excess fruit, you can help increase production next year. You see, many apple trees naturally produce biennially: a year of abundant harvest is usually followed by a year with few to no fruit. But by reducing the load in a year of plenty, the tree often invests the energy thus saved in better flowering and fruiting the following season. By repeating this thinning during years of mass production, it’s often possible to attain a more reliable annual production.
Thinning excess fruit is even more important in the case of young trees, like yours, whose thinner branches are more prone to breakage.
How to Thin Apples
With your fingers or pruning shears, simply remove the excess fruit by pulling them free or clipping them at their base. Just don’t damage the spur they grow from.
Often, there are clusters of 5 or 6 fruits. It’s best to reduce the cluster to just one fruit, two for crabapples. Keep the largest fruit, probably the fruit produced by the central flower of the cluster, unless it’s damaged in some way: insects, disease, physical injury, etc. In that case, choose a smaller but healthy fruit instead.
Next, give the whole branch a look-over: if it still appears heavy, remove more fruit, leaving about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) between the remaining apples.
Ideally, you’d do this when the fruits are still small, within a month of fruit formation, but even if you missed that window, thinning out could still help prevent breakage.
A Bit of Pruning
It is also possible that the leaning trunk is partly caused by uneven branching. If there are many more branches on one side of the tree than on the other, it will tend to lean even if the fruit load is reasonable. If you feel this might be the case, you can also lighten the tree by removing a few branches from the overloaded side to better balance the weight. True enough, you don’t normally prune apple trees in the middle of summer, but this is an exception and the pruning is relatively minor.
Early next spring, when the tree is barren, take a closer look and consider whether more pruning is needed.
After you’ve thinned the tree, it’s really time to consider whether the trunk is still necessary. If it’s still leaning, it probably is.
There are several ways to stake a tree, but the most logical way of staking an established tree is to use guy wiring (taut cables) to straighten the trunk.
💡Helpful Hint: Guy wire kits are readily available in garden centers and hardware stores.
Here is one possible method.
Hammer 3 stakes into the ground, evenly distributed around the trunk, so they lean outwards like a tent peg. A distance of about 5 to 6 feet (1.50 to 2 m) from the trunk would be fine.
Now install 3 ropes or wires around the trunk just above the first fork of the tree. These wires or ropes must never come in direct contact with the trunk or branches, as over time they will dig in and cause damage. You need some sort of broad, flat material to cover the bark: canvas strapping, strips of old carpeting, burlap or bicycle inner tubes would be fine. Do not insert ropes or wires through sections of garden hose to wrap around the tree stem. You see this done a lot … but the hose, being round not flat, will put all its pressure on a very narrow strip of bark and can thus cause damage.
💡Helpful Hint: Consider painting the stakes orange and using colored rope to make both more visible and prevent tripping.
Secure the other end to the stake and tighten it, adjusting it as needed to straighten the tree. The trunk should still be able to move in the wind to a certain degree: movement actually helps solidify it.
Staking should not be left in place for more than two years; otherwise it can weaken the tree. At any rate, if the tree hasn’t returned to its proper upright form after 2 years, it never will!
With the above techniques, you should be able to restore balance to your apple tree and enjoy it for decades to come.