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Last spring (18 months ago) I planted a 6/8 Malus John Downie crab apple tree. It has an unusually long trunk, the lowest branch is almost two metres up. As it is growing, the leader is going straight up and is now already getting too high to pick fruit. I specifically want my trees kept low and easy to pick either from the ground or a short ladder.

Is it safe/normal to just hop the top off the main leader at the height I want the tree to be or is there a better technique?

  • I say let it grow for a few years until it actually fruit, you can always cut it later. – Talbatz Sep 11 at 13:07
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Penn State University has a nice overall discussion of pruning principles. One of those principles is the ability of old wood to produce or not produce new shoots. Generally the younger the wood, the more likely that a nice selection of new shoots will be produced. So you really don't want to let wood get older before pruning, otherwise you end up with a bunch of water shoots at the bottom of the tree which will take time to relax into producing flower buds again.

My suggestion is to hit it hard while the wood is youngish to the height you want and deal with the sprouting now; at least there will be a nice selection of new shoots to choose from.

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Unfortunately, if you wanted to grow a crabapple specifically to pick its fruits rather than simply as an ornamental tree, it would have been better to buy one or two cordon trained varieties on a semi dwarfing rootstock such as M26, such as those listed here https://www.pomonafruits.co.uk/fruit-nut-trees/cordon-columnar-fruit-trees/cordon-crab-apple-trees-malus. If you have the space, you might want to consider getting some; there are a few weeping forms of crabapple too, as well some naturally columnar varieties, though size of fruits might be an important factor to consider when looking at alternatives.

No matter how you try to prevent your tree from developing apical domination at this stage, I'm afraid it will always try to restore that for the next couple of years; its also likely not on dwarfing rootstock, so trying to keep it low and relatively small for ease of fruit picking may not be very successful. As the tree matures, it stops trying to shoot straight up; the crown tends to spread out sideways, with branches tending to droop down a bit lower - ultimate height and spread for this variety is around 5m x 3m. Recommended pruning time for crabapple trees is late winter, just before growth begins, and they fall into Prune Group 1 - light pruning only. In reality, you can prune lightly at other times without the tree coming to harm.

  • I suppose the other option is I just let it grow. They tend to be pretty prolific as well as good for birds. I don't need to reach every fruit, I just need a lot of fruit within reach – Mr. Boy Sep 11 at 19:37
  • Well, it should certainly be easier to reach the fruits as the tree gets more mature, once the side branches develop and hang down a bit lower. They usually don't need much pruning, they make naturally attractive shapes... – Bamboo Sep 11 at 20:30
  • Believe it or not if you don’t prune your fruit trees, they’ll develop a tendency to only produce fruit once’s every two years. Prune your trees to the height you want and keep them there. – Escoce Sep 12 at 2:10
  • @Escoce - in my experience, what you say is true of some apple and plum varieties, but is not true of crabapple; barring drought when the fruitlets form or an infection at flowering time, they always produce fruits, though some years may be more prolific than others due to weather conditions. Nor is regular pruning recommended for crabapple, unlike other Malus varieties. – Bamboo Sep 12 at 10:44

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