Landowners have planted trees primarily for cover, windbreaks or visual barriers around a property, but a relatively new movement in private land habitat management is fruit trees. Apple trees are particularly popular for deer and other wildlife.

The work doesn't end once the trees are in the ground. Occasional pruning is needed to maintain a healthy tree.

The best time to prune your apple trees is now during the late dormant period. Pruning helps trees maintain shape. It also opens up a tree's canopy to increased sunlight and air circulation. Both promote fruit production in mature trees. Pruning young trees encourages a solid structure.

You don't need costly power tools for the job. A pole saw, a hand saw, a hand pruner, loppers and a step ladder will usually do.

The pole saw is a telescoping shaft usually made of fiberglass with a curved saw blade attached to one end. It makes branches otherwise out of reach easier to cut. The hand saw and hand pruner are good for lower branches. A lopper is a pruner with long handles that provide enough leverage to cut through limbs up to an inch or so in diameter.

Begin pruning by removing any diseased or dead branches. It can difficult to identify dead limbs during the dormant period. One trick is to scratch the bark with your thumbnail. The scratched area will be green and moist if the limb is alive; brown and dry if dead.

Take bad branches back to live wood, or to the tree trunk. Make your cuts ahead of the branch collar, which is the circular knob where the branch is connected to the tree trunk. Leaving the branch collar helps heal the wound. Apply the same technique to any stubs or broken branches.

Next, remove any branches that grow straight up or down. This helps improve air circulation. Prune out any branches that rub or crisscross.

When you cut a branch, the bud directly beneath the cut will take over and grow a limb. Make your cuts about one-fourth of an inch above outward-facing buds so the resulting branch will grow away from the trunk.

Take a step back from the tree, and assess its shape. An apple tree should have one central leader. A tree with two or more leaders will develop a weak top. Leave the strongest leader, and remove others.

Look at the main branches growing from the trunk. These are called scaffolding branches. Ideally, these branches should leave the trunk at an angle slightly higher than parallel to the ground. It allows the branches to bear the weight of mature fruit. If the angle is too steep the branches will break under the load of a bumper crop or a heavy, wet snow.

When finished, a properly pruned tree is well worth the effort. It will bear a crop of healthy fruit for you — and wildlife — to enjoy.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.