Pruning is the cutting away of vegetation from plants for horticultural purposes. Pruning is known to reduce apple tree size, increase fruit size and quality, and decrease yield. Methods for studying the effects of varying degrees of severity of pruning on a whole-tree basis have used qualitative descriptions of treatments rather than repeatable whole-tree quantitative metrics. In this study, we introduce a pruning severity index calculated from the sum of the cross-sectional area of all branches on a tree at 2.5 cm from their union to the central leader divided by the cross-sectional area of its central leader at 30 cm from the graft union. This limb to trunk ratio (LTR) was then modified by successively removing the largest branches of ‘Buckeye Gala’ to achieve six severity levels ranging from LTR 0.5 to LTR 1.75, with lower values representing more extreme pruning with less whole-tree limb area relative to trunk area. Pruning treatments were applied for three consecutive years and tree growth and cropping responses were observed for the first 2 years. With increasing pruning severity the following characteristics increased after seasonal growth: number of renewal limbs, number of shoots, shoot length, number of shoot leaves, shoot leaf area, final fruit set, fruit size, yield of large fruit, crop value from large fruit, soluble solids, and titratable acidity. The following characteristics decreased: limb age, number of secondary limbs, number of spurs, number of spur leaves, spur leaf area, the ratio of spur leaf area to shoot leaf area, fruit count per tree, yield, yield efficiency, crop value from small fruit, overall crop value, and sugar:acid ratio. The LTR provides a measurable way to define and create different levels of pruning severity and achieve consistent outcomes. This allows a greater degree of accuracy and precision to dormant pruning of tall spindle apple trees. The use of the LTR to establish the level of pruning severity allows the orchard manager to set crop load potential through regulation of the canopy bearing surface. This metric is also a necessary step in the development of autonomous pruning systems.
The authors gratefully acknowledge funding support from the USDA NIFA Specialty Crop Research Initiative (Grant no. 2012-51181-19878) and the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania, along with industry partners who provided project matching funds.
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