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I planted a bare-root Gala apple tree last year, and it's waking up now and budding all over. However, a good number of the buds are close to the ground, and they're coming out along the entire length of the young trunk.

Should I prune the buds close to the ground to encourage growth at the top? Or will this stress the tree too much when it's just getting established?

For reference, the tree is planted in clay loam soil with a wide mulch basin in zone 7B in northern New Mexico, with spring conditions of 100% sun (all supplemental irrigation), 35-70f daily temperatures, and 10-50 MPH winds, so conditions are rather harsh.

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Every bud can become a shoot/branch. If you don't want branches where buds appear (like on the trunk close to the ground), just rub them off. If you've waited so long that they are now shoots that you don't want, remove them with your pruner. That's all there is to it.

Fruit trees are frequently grafted to roots of a different variety, or even a different species. The rootstock is chosen for tolerance of growing conditions that the desirable fruit-bearing plant doesn't cope well with on its own. Under some conditions the rootstock will send up shoots we call 'suckers'. You ought to also remove suckers as they appear.

These actions (in and of themselves) will not harm your tree, but pruning can infect your tree if the cutting tool is carrying a pathogen from their prior use on an infected tree. Since you often may not know that the other tree was infected, it is a good idea to always sterilize you cutting tools before using them on any given tree. If you know that your tree is infected and you are pruning to remove the infected tissue, it is a good idea to sterilize before/after every cut.

Isopropyl alcohol (70%) is good for this purpose and will not corrode your cutting tools. Household bleach works well for killing pathogens, but will corrode your tools. With knifes and scissors/pruners I find it convenient to wipe the cutting surfaces with a alcohol soaked paper towel (or some such). Saws I drench (pour alcohol onto the teeth).

  • So it won't unduly stress the tree to prune when it's so young? That's my main worry. – iLikeDirt Mar 18 '16 at 13:01
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    No, it will not. Don't be afraid to cut it, it will grow. If you were trying to develop this young tree into a bonsai, say,you would likely chop the trunk down to a few inches above the ground about now. The trunk would pop many buds and we would select one to become the new leader and thin out concentrations and then let it grow. After time we make a trunk that moves around instead of being straight and that tapers quickly to an apex less than 3 feet off the ground. I enjoy bonsai, but was very afraid to prune/cut also, when I started. Pruning is how you shape your tree - fear not :-) – Jim Young Mar 18 '16 at 16:37

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