Can you reach the bits of apple trees that require attention? Far be it from me to encourage you to strap on high altitude kit and shinny up some vast, ancient plant that has been fruiting for decades without fuss. If you need to hire a cherry picker or scaffolding to reach the branches, assure yourself that it will get by without you or hire a trusted professional to risk their neck. If you can attain the necessary height from modest step ladders and the surface beneath is grass not concrete, imprison pets or infants temporarily, tool up or instruct your partner and follow me.
Helleborus foetidus ‘Wester Flisk’ (stinking hellebore)
This is the time for routine winter pruning of spur bearing hardy fruits. Start by removing anything crossing, rubbing, weak, diseased, damaged or dead. If that’s not enough for you, shorten lateral stems to encourage side shoots which will become festooned with blossom and thence bear produce. Don’t chop the most vigorous leaders, or you will encourage sprawling habit at the expense of the crop. You should aim to take off a maximum of 10 to 20 % of the canopy per year. Resist the red mist which makes you want to attack the entire tree like a lumberjack on amphetamine. Restrict long laterals to five or six buds, weaker ones to two or three. If you are a beginner at this, think Zen and go gently. Tickle the side shoots into compliance and if you get it wrong, you won’t be left with a bare trunk with all the insouciant charm of a telegraph pole.
Waiting for spring
As with all pruning, aim for an open crown based on a goblet shape, which allows air circulation and light to reach all of the essential parts. After some years of lusty production, spurs will become congested and call for thinning. If last year’s apples were squeezed out in a rectangular shape due to lack of space, you should now cut out old growth, leaving younger wood to do the business. When you have achieved the result you want, are too tired to climb another step, and/or need the fire brigade to remove you from your perch, sprinkle some bone meal over the roots to repay your depredations. Then stop.
Euphorbia characias wulfenii (Mediterranean spurge)
If your tree bears fruit on the end of the branches, prune a few old shoots each year, making the cut to a strong shoot or bud. Remove crowded growth in pursuit of endless production of young, healthy prolific shoots. Remember that pruning will make a plant grow; if you give a tree a general all-over thrashing, next year it will resemble a hay stack with lots of leaf but not much else. There are plenty of online sites for more useful advice. I am always happy to recommend the Royal Horticultural Society, who even have a page headed “Pruning Made Easy”. When you have sharpened your secateurs, bought a new pruning saw that cuts cleanly and followed all of the expert opinion, you should be rewarded with a bumper harvest. If you don’t want to leave your comfortable chair just yet, you have until March to finish this job. Perhaps you may want to research recipes for future bounty or clear out the freezer to make room for next autumn’s gifts. I give you a word of warning; beware of apple and ginger chutney, which has a laxative effect of apocalyptic proportions. Stew up a batch if you must but don’t give it to anyone that you actually like.