Our Professional Gardener Shares Bizarre Yet Excellent Old-School Fruit Tree Pruning Advice

There's plenty of old farming folklore about fruit trees, because growing fruit trees is, historically speaking, such an integral part of human foodways and agriculture. Advice on planting, pruning, and harvest is linked to many old agricultural festivals celebrating fruit trees throughout the season (like wassailing). The old adage that says "Prune your apple tree until you can throw a cat through it" does not, of course, mean you should actually throw your cat at the tree. It's meant to refer to the "cat-sized" amount of space you should have between branches for the best fruit production.

I recall the first time I heard this advice. I was talking with a friend whose family owns a large rural property in western New York. The land is covered with wild apple trees, and there are also two small orchards that were planted, so the owner (now deceased) did plenty of work for many years taking care of the apple trees. I've done some pruning of the trees there too, and he offered the advice: "The old farmers say you should prune the apple tree until it looks like you can throw a cat through it." 

I laughed, but as I visualized this weird idea, I began to understand what he meant. If you know anything about cats, imagine their displeasure if you were to throw one through the middle of an apple tree! Now, don't do this, obviously, but let's break this idea down.

What throw a cat really means here

Think about it. If you were to throw a cat through the middle of your apple tree branches, it would be very upset! A cat would spread its limbs akimbo out of annoyance and fear, and that would mean the space would have to be at least twice its size for it to fit. It's a strange, comical image, but it turns out it's very good advice for apple tree pruning. It's not just about leaving enough space for a cat to fit through. It's leaving enough space for an angry, scared cat with its legs spread out to fit through (as opposed to a calm, happy cat who enjoys your garden and doesn't try to destroy things).

Keeping in mind that the average cat weighs between 8-10 lbs., and is about a foot long, so the size of the spread-out "thrown" cat would probably be a rough circle about two feet in diameter. If your apple tree has dense branching such that you can't see through the middle of it to the other side, this pruning advice may seem extreme or daunting. But the good thing is, you don't have to do it all at once.

Apple trees benefit from pruning, but depending on the size of the branch being cut, the timing is important. Here's where some more folk wisdom comes into play, to help you determine which branches to prune and when so you can create that cat-sized space in your apple tree. 

The folk wisdom of apple tree pruning

Okay, so you're on board with the pruning advice of visualizing a cat spreading out mid-air as a guide for how to prune your apple tree. But how can you best implement this methodology? If your apple tree has gone a while without being pruned properly, it might seem drastic to remove a lot of branches all at once. So you can do your apple tree pruning at two different times to improve fruit production, using advice also linked to folk wisdom.

The old trick about cats and apple trees I learned from my friend wasn't the only pruning tip he gave me. He also advised me on the proper timing and selection of branches. If they are as big around as your finger, you can prune them anytime. This includes the water sprouts that grow straight up from larger limbs. If the branches are as big around as your wrist, or bigger, wait to prune them until late autumn (early December). By then, the tree has entered its dormant season, so pruning won't adversely affect its growth cycle.

Growing apple trees is a time-honored activity that links us to generations of farmers and people who grew fruit for themselves and others. Learning to take proper care of them is not only satisfying and practical, but can be a fun, interesting way to learn about folklore and old farming insights. Even your cat may approve.