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Limb From Limb: Learning to Prune Wild Apple Trees

  • Orange County foresters Dave Paganelli, left, and Paul Harwood, second from left, discuss their strategy for pruning a wild apple with Judith Falk, of South Strafford, right, and Nate Thames, of Vershire, second from right, during an apple pruning workshop on the land of Larry Mengedoht in Tunbridge, Vt., Saturday, March 11, 2017. The workshop focused less on increasing apple production by old or wild apple trees for human consumption, and more improving neglected trees for animal and bird consumption and habitat. March 11, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Larry Mengedoht, front left, shows images of apple trees during a slide show on releasing trees that have become overgrown by surrounding brush and trees at his home in Tunbridge, Vt., Saturday, March 14, 2017. Rich Chalmers, of Williamstown, is at back left, and Dave Paganelli, Vermont State Forester for Orange County, is at right. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Paul Harwood, of Tunbridge, right, holds a branch selected for cutting by Robert Fortunati, of Corinth, left, because of its close parallel of an other branch during a pruning workshop in Tunberidge, Vt., Saturday, March 14, 2017. Harwood, a forester, taught the workshop with Dave Paganelli, Vermont state forester for Orange County. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ben Wolfe, of Tunbridge, endures a cold wind in a fur hat borrowed from land owner Larry Mengedoht during an apple tree pruning workshop in Tunbridge, Vt., Saturday, March 11, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On one of the coldest mornings this winter, with temperatures hovering around 6 degrees and buffeting winds coming out of the north, Orange County forester Dave Paganelli was in a field in Tunbridge wielding a chain saw.

It wasn’t what anyone would call ideal weather for apple tree pruning.

But, Paganelli, who was dressed for the weather, was demonstrating to around 10 attendees of a workshop on wild apple trees how they can reclaim the trees from years of neglect and surrounding overgrowth.

The point of the workshop isn’t to resurrect the trees so they can produce fruit for human consumption, but so that they can act as a food source for wildlife in the winter months when food is scarce.

Paganelli, along with Vermont forester Paul Harwood and Rich Chalmers, the president of Vermont Coverts, co-led the workshop, which was co-sponsored by the Vermont Woodlands Association and Vermont Coverts, which works with landowners to preserve habitat for wildlife. (“Coverts,” pronounced cuh-verts, comes from an old English word meaning dense thickets suitable for wildlife, according to the Vermont Coverts website.)

The trees are on the property of Larry Mengedoht, the treasurer of Vermont Coverts. Mengedoht and his wife, Ruth, have lived on the property for 15 years, and Mengedoht took an early interest in the trees. He estimated that the wild apples growing along the section of stone wall where Paganelli was working were probably 60 years old.

Because the apple trees along the wall are in danger of being overtaken by fast-growing trees, shrubs and grass, Paganelli decided to cut back some of the undergrowth.

“I think we could lose this,” he said, pointing to a young black cherry that, if left alone, would impede the growth of one of the apple trees.

Wild apple trees, said Harwood, are typically trees that have sprouted from seeds, unlike orchard trees that are produced through grafting. From a human standpoint, apples that grow on wild trees, while they can be good for cider, are often inedible, scabby and unappealing-looking, he said.

But, for deer, bear, rodents and birds, they’re sustenance, providing nutrients and proteins in winter. That food source becomes even more crucial in years when the nut mast from beeches or acorns is lower than normal, Harwood said.

He added that the trees are also beneficial for predators that eat rodents, birds or deer.

The key to helping old, wild apple trees along is the process of “releasing” and pruning.

“Releasing” a tree means clearing the ground around of vegetation that is choking off the tree’s growth and access to air and light.

Pruning the tree involves removing both dead limbs and branches that cross one another, as well as cutting away the branches and limbs in such a way to give the tree a defined shape and balance, with no one side dominating. .

Releasing a tree can be done at any time of year, but pruning is best done between mid-October and mid-April, when trees are dormant, said Harwood. It’s not advisable to prune in warm weather because of the risk of the transfer of pathogens to the open cut on the tree. Once the buds begin to look “fuzzy and fat,” the window of opportunity for pruning is over until the fall.

Another key, said Paganelli, is that “you don’t want to release (a tree) and prune it in the same year.”

If, say, a tree is growing in dense, moist shade, releasing and pruning it at the same time, would expose it to more abundant sunlight and drier conditions, ultimately risking the health of a tree you’re trying to bring back.

For that reason, it’s important to judge the condition of a tree before you start the process of releasing and pruning, Harwood said.

“Treat each tree as an individual,” Mengedoht added.

Younger, hardier trees can withstand more intervention than an older tree, Harwood said. But location is also important. It’s prudent, Harwood said, to “spend time on a tree where a better outcome is more likely.”

A landowner might not want to expend a lot of effort, for instance, on wild apples that have grown in a hollow, where cold tends to settle, because the buds tend to be more at risk from frost damage in spring if there are dramatic fluctuating temperatures.

There are some other rules of thumb, said Paganelli and Harwood.

Don’t overprune, because the tree will then produce more suckers, the shoots that grow from the base of the tree, or watersprouts, the vertical shoots that grow off the trunk or branches. These leach moisture and nutrients from the tree.

It’s not necessary to seal the cuts with paint. In fact, that can do more harm than good.

Don’t cut back more than one-third of the tree’s crown.

Maybe the best description, Harwood said, of what a tree should look like when you’re done pruning comes from an old maxim he learned from another forester: a robin should be able to fly through the crown without hitting its wings on any of the branches.

For information on vermontcoverts go to vtcoverts.org. For information on the Vermont Woodlands Association go to vermontwoodlands.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.