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 'Topping' apple trees... 
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Joined: Wed Jan 28, 2009 12:21 pm
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Post 'Topping' apple trees...
We're on a small, 14 acre orchard, and entering our mid-50's pruning and getting off/on ladder is getting harder for my husband's feet. Has anyone 'topped' apple trees? We thought maybe if we switched to a pick-your-own exclusive operation, as we have w/ the peaches and blackberries and pumpkins, a LOT of the picking, polishing, ladder work could be done away with. The emphasis would be on topping out the highest of branches/limbs to make it easier for the customers.

Anyone have any experience with this method? :?:


Mon Jun 15, 2009 7:33 pm
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Joined: Sun May 15, 2005 10:57 am
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Location: Portland, OR
Post Re: 'Topping' apple trees...
I would recommend that you buy rootstock for the appropriate height that you want, so you can keep it the size that you want. Then graft on the varieties that you want. The tree wants to grow to be the size that it naturally wants it to be. If you top it, it will want to grow back to that size. I guess it depends on how much longer you want to be running that operation, and for how many years you want to keep hacking that tree back.
John S
PDX OR


Mon Jun 15, 2009 11:42 pm
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Joined: Thu Jan 27, 2005 11:27 pm
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Location: Yamhill County, Oregon
Post Re: 'Topping' apple trees...
How old are your trees; are they on ‘standard’ rootstock; how ‘tall’ are they; and have they been pruned regularly?

It’s hard to say what some mean by ‘topped’… ‘Butchered’ is what I generally encounter; where all fruit producing limbs have been removed by chainsaw, leaving what’s left of the frame work to ‘start over.’

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Tue Jun 16, 2009 9:19 am
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Joined: Wed Jan 28, 2009 12:21 pm
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Post Re: 'Topping' apple trees...
The trees are semi-dwarf and require ladders - and even w/o ladders there is fruit loss. The orchard was planted in the mid-80's. This will be our 5th crop here as we purchased the place 4 years ago. It's just my husband and I, and this year his feet have been intolerable. He's 6'7" and has flat feet. If he doesn't find a way to take the pressure off (according to Dr.), he could face surgery and 6 months in a wheel chair plus recovery. NOT an option. He has been to specialists for inserts in his boots.

Too late for us in life to mess around tearing down an orchard and replanting - mid 50's. We thought if we took out the limbs that provide the highest branches and that needed pruning w/ ladders, the growth would be closer to the public. We have thought about taking out about l/3 of the orchard, but that still leaves pruning, thinning w/ ladders. If the trees weren't so tall I could do the pruning myself. We use a pneumatic air pruner, but it's too unwieldey for me. We have 2 other pruners for height that I can handle as long as the limbs aren't too thick.

If anyone has had any experience with this process, would LOVE to hear about it. Thanks for the responses; greatly appreciated!


Tue Jun 16, 2009 7:26 pm
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Joined: Thu Jan 27, 2005 11:27 pm
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Location: Yamhill County, Oregon
Post Re: 'Topping' apple trees...
“Too late for us in life to mess around tearing down an orchard and replanting” – I agree, and what a loss, too.

I’ve a friend with around 30 trees, mixed apple and pear varieties on semi-dwarf rootstock. She’d hardly gotten any fruit on these 20 year old trees, but had kept them pruned low. She’d been removing their fruit spurs, so after 3 years of further pruning and thinning (by me) she’s got a bumper crop (in need of fruit thinning) on trees you can reach!

With deer, I’ve not been able to leave my trees so low; in town, she can/has – that’s one reason I’m drawn to them – just leave my ladder at home! I’ve also removed lower limbs for mowing and, as you’d desire, removed the highest. I’d say it can be done.

A couple more questions… How tall (on average) are they, and at what height do their lowest limbs begin (on average)? And (roughly), where are you located?

It would be near impossible to place 'new lower limbs' (have successful grafts grow) lower than they are now; they’d be too shaded to establish themselves from what would be left above… Upright limbs could certainly be removed, timed for later this Summer/Fall, to avoid sun-scald and help balance the nutrients returning to the roots – thus keeping down some of the water-sucker growth the following year – though easily ‘snapped or snipped.’

Also, with such ‘butchery’ taking place :wink:, if there were any ‘varieties’ you aren’t happy with, or would like to add others, even for pollination, it would be a great time for some top-work grafting. With the upper-most canopy removed, sun would reach the interior allowing newly attached scions to flourish!

If you’re ‘close in’ enough to draw the public to U-pick your peaches and blackberries and pumpkins, a U-pick apple orchard sounds doable. …what are the bulk of your apple varieties; and do you have a ‘spray program,’ – and – ample space for tractor access?

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Wed Jun 17, 2009 9:04 am
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Post Re: 'Topping' apple trees...
We spray by tractor, thin, prune, you name it. They aren't as tall as standard varieties, but you need a ladder to pick from every tree for sure - Red Delicious are the easiest to pick.

We already have a pick-your-own enterprise going here; bought the place 4 years ago from a couple that retired. We do pick the asparagus and it's the most reliable crop; the blackberries, peaches, pumpkins and as of last year apples are customer picked. Prev. owner didn't let others pick apples - afraid of damage to the spurs - but we've had excellent luck. Customers will pick apples you'd toss!
We do pick the rest ourselves, polish them on an antique machine, bag and refrigerate them in walk-in coolers. LOTS of work to apples.

My husband's idea is to take out the middle highest limbs. Even when they continue to grow back, they'd be easy to prune out, leaving an open area and making it easier for customers to reach. We know this will lead to a lot less apples, and there would still be a few to reach by ladder, but I could handle that. The workload is heavy on apples.

We sell everything right here; we don't spend a drop of gas on lugging our items anywhere else to sell, and we have a LOT of traffic here. Once established, folks will come. We're prob going to go ahead and 'top' the eastern l/3 of the apples this fall. They're the oldest and have sustained some tornado damage a couple years back. You can get to a lot of apples from the ground, ladders are a no-no here; we don't even leave them out in sight. So far no one has been caught climbing the trees! :roll:

Ooops forgot the varieties!

Red Delicious, Empire, Scarlet and Kidd Gala, Johnathan, EarliBlaze, EarliGold, Winesap, Fuji, Zestar, Gravenstein, Granny Smith, Blushing Gold, Ozarkgold.

Peaches are: Red Haven, Starfire, Envoy, Glohaven, Paul's Flaming Fury and Contender

Blackberries: Triple Crown and Chester, both thornless.


Sun Jun 21, 2009 11:09 pm
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Joined: Thu Jan 27, 2005 11:27 pm
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Location: Yamhill County, Oregon
Post Re: 'Topping' apple trees...
Sounds like a plan. I was going to mention losing fruit spurs as people just ‘pull down’ to remove the apples. Had an owner follow us around once while picking Yellow Delicious at a U-pick orchard, said it was to see we didn’t break off the spurs…

You’ve likely no problem with pollination, with all those varieties. …I’d also been wondering about the insurance liability with ladders… I’ve a large one-time U-pick strawberry growing neighbor that got out of it due to insurance liability and fears of people falling or tripping in muddy rows; and the logistics required, such as posting signs for ‘drinking water’ in seven different languages…

Removing tops this fall will keep the sun-scald problem down, as they’ll send up ‘protection’ in the form of water suckers next year. …I’d suggest a ‘picking poll’ device for the few fruit too high to reach from the ground, but talk about ripping off fruit spurs – they’re more damage than they’re worth and I rarely use mine.

…and, I’m trying not to discourage you, but I know of a magnificent orchard near a main highway apparently abandoned as the best they could do was ‘give’ their apples away at 20 cents a pound to ‘get rid of them’ every year. …and that seems the going rate for local orchards; better ‘closer toward’ town, but not by much. But times they are a changin… good luck!

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Mon Jun 22, 2009 9:13 am
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Joined: Wed Jan 28, 2009 12:21 pm
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Post Re: 'Topping' apple trees...
Yup we charge 79cents lb. for picked and 50 cents a lb. for pick-your-own on the apples. We were planning on charging l0 cents a lb. more for each this year, but we don't hardly have any this year but Red Delicious. Next year...

The prev. owner was worried about others picking and damaging the trees, but folks around here listen well and we've had NO probs except a group of adults from an adult-care home. We kept them to l tree; it'll be 'their tree' from now on. As for ladders and insurance, yeah we were warned about that. Peaches we have are picked evenings and it's a free for all round here, believe me! No probs so far. We have port a potties during fall for pumpkin weekends (6 weeks), and hoses/hydrants w/ drinking features attached we picked up in a magazine. Works ok.

We've pretty much set our mind to topping the middle mostly. Have to post pics this fall! Thanks for all the ideas and feedback; appreciated greatly!! :wink:


Tue Jun 23, 2009 8:30 am
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Joined: Mon Feb 23, 2009 7:24 pm
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Location: Sublimity, OR
Post Re: 'Topping' apple trees...
With 14 acres (as you indicate) would it possibly be a worthy investment to purchase a self-propelled vehicle with some sort of moveable lift? Somewhere I have seen what appear to be table type lifts with a fairly large walking area; and then there are the bucket units. This also presupposes that your orchard's terrain is suitably flat.

These lifts are probably expensive and a sizeable purchase/investment. I don't know what the costs might be or if these are appropriate for an orchard of your size. You indicated that the continued ladder and doctor route is unrealistic, and if you consider that replanting would mean a considerable investment in time and money as well as years without crop, it might be worthwhile to investigate both new and used equipment. Certainly, as a piece of farm equipment, the value of this type of machinery would become part of the saleable orchard asset.


Wed Jun 24, 2009 8:26 pm
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Joined: Sat Jul 04, 2009 12:42 pm
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Location: Faribault, Minnesota
Post Re: 'Topping' apple trees...
I will throw out the observation that there are indeed some aerial work platforms that might help. A little large and awkward in a tree but possibly helpful especially at the very top and when working around the outside.

The best deals are on pickups and vans with aerial buckets. These generally have a working height of around 35-40 feet, and they're cheap because there are many electric, cable TV, and phone utilities that replace them on a regular schedule. The trouble with them for orchard work is that you have to exit the bucket to move the pickup or van. Take a look at boomtruck.com. There are often perfectly usable machines for under $15,000.

There are also self-propelled four-wheel-drive machines with high flotation tires where the movement can be controlled without leaving the bucket. Though no more expensive new these are more costly on the used market because they aren't used by utility companies, just construction, who don't trade them in as often.


Sat Jul 04, 2009 12:49 pm
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Joined: Mon Feb 23, 2009 7:24 pm
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Location: Sublimity, OR
Post Re: 'Topping' apple trees...
FrozenNorth -- aside from the fact that moving the pick-up part of an aerial bucket would involve getting in and out of the bucket, I would like to add that there could be significant soil compaction associated with its use. That might not be good in the long run.

And with a platform, it might be possible to have a second individual working the "other" side. What I don't know is if there are scissors-lift platforms that could be moved by a tractor or pulled along with a remotely controlled electric winch.

With either system, I think that extension poles on pruning saws, and pruners, and long-handled shears would be beneficial.


Sun Jul 05, 2009 1:09 pm
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