YOUR GUIDE TO PRUNING APPLE TREES
By David Marks
This page gives you expert advice on how to prune an apple tree. We stick to the common basic bush shape because that’s what is grown in 95% of gardens, allotments and parks. We don’t make it complicated, we keep it simple with a few basic and essential principles. Pruning an apple tree is only complicated if you make it so.
Our only distinction is between newly planted trees, second year trees and older trees. Follow our basic rules below and you will have a healthy, well shaped tree capable of producing a good crop of apples.
EQUIPMENT NEEDED TO PRUNE APPLE TREES
The equipment needed to prune an apple tree depends on how thick the branches are and how high the tree is. Three pieces of ‘equipment ‘though are always needed and these are:
- Secateurs – these must be sharp to avoid crushing rather than cutting cleanly any stems and small branches. Before cutting in earnest, try out your secateurs on a redundant piece of wood to make sure they cut cleanly. If they don’t then buy a new pair or get the old ones sharpened (difficult nowadays). Clean your secateurs thoroughly to ensure they don’t transfer any disease, pest or spores. Boring but very important especially when working on more than one tree – clean between pruning different trees. To clean, wash them thoroughly in soapy water, clean them again with bleach, rinse thoroughly under running water and then dry off with a cloth.
- Knowledge and time – knowledge can be gained by reading this article thoroughly before you start. As far as time goes, a new one year old tree can be pruned in five minutes, but an old overgrown tree may take several hours and this may well need to be spread over three or four years.
- A dry day – not really equipment but pruning should always be done on a dry day. If you cut stems and branches on a wet day the risk of infection entering the cuts is much increased. The English weather is not always the best for pruning in winter but there will be dry days and it’s best to wait for one of them.
The above is all you will need for new and small apple trees but for older trees you may well need more sturdy cutting equipment and the means to reach higher branches. If this is the case you need to consider how agile you are and how well you cope with heights. For the reasonably agile, capable of climbing a ladder, then the equipment you will need for pruning larger apple trees (in addition to those listed above) is as follows:
- Pruning saw or carpenter’s saw – see secateurs above for the cleanliness rules. Either will do the job, the choice is up to you. We would go for a pruning saw but they are more expensive.
- A ladder – if the tree is tall then a ladder is essential. It’s always safest to cut a branch when you are at the correct height and it’s also likely to produce the cleanest cut. Without going into all the safety aspects of using ladders, at least make sure it is on flat, even ground and is securely tied to a strong branch on the tree.
- Chalk (optional) – if a tree is particularly overgrown and out of control it’s often best to mark the main branches to be cut with a piece of chalk at the point of the proposed cut. Then stand back (after getting off the ladder of course!) and consider if the proposed cuts are really as you want.
This section deals with pruning an apple tree which you have recently bought and planted. First decide if the tree is a one year old or a two year old. This should be made clear to you when you bought the tree or on the labels that come with it. If you don’t know, then as a rule of thumb a one year old tree will have less than six side branches, normally two or three. A two year old tree will have five or more side branches.
PRUNING A NEW ONE YEAR OLD TREE
Prune a new one year old apple tree in winter after it has been planted. Normally the tree will be about 150cm / 5ft tall but this varies. With the tree planted you should cut it to a height of 90cm / 3ft above ground. This may sound harsh but this then allows the tree to put all its energy into producing branches at the correct height. Make the cut just above a bud and slant the cut so that any water settling on the top will run away from the bud.
Tidy up the tree by cutting back any branches to about 5cm / 2in. That’s it for a one year old tree.
A two year old apple tree should have previously been pruned as detailed above when it was a one year old. This applies to two year old new bare-rooted or container grown trees as well as those already growing in your own garden.
The pruning used for a two year old tree is important because it will define the base structure of the tree for the rest of its life. Although we show you a real life tree in this section every one will be different. Understand the overall objective behind this stage of pruning and you can apply it to almost any apple tree which has been correctly pruned at year one.
- Four main branches – prune so that you have three to five main branches coming off the central trunk. If you have more than this the tree structure will become crowded. If you have less the tree will find it difficult grow in a balanced fashion.
- Even spacing around the main trunk – aim to have the main branches evenly spaced around the tree. If for instance you have four main branches they should be pointing left, right, forwards and backwards. It will be unlikely that this can be done exactly but try to select main branches which fit this criteria best. It’s at this stage that you may decide three main branches is best to achieve a balance around the tree.
- Correct spacing up the main trunk – ideally you want to aim for branches which are spaced about 10cm / 4 in apart up the trunk. Keep the lowest branch at least 75cm / 2ft 6in above ground level, slightly higher is best. Again, this is the ideal but with most trees a compromise will be required.
- Main branches should be pointing outwards not upwards – if any of the main branches grows almost vertically it will cause crowding of the centre of the tree, something definitely to be avoided. If a main branch is doing this it needs to be pruned to an outward facing bud – the cut needs to be made fairly near the main trunk to force the branch to grow outwards and not upwards.
Remember, the description above is the ideal and almost all trees will need some compromise. Of all the four points above the last one (branches pointing outwards) is probably the most important.
Having stated the ideal methods above, click here for our real life examples (three different two year old apple trees) of two year pruning which just goes to prove how much compromise may well be needed in real life!
HOW TO PRUNE OLDER APPLE TREES
Once an apple tree has reached three years or older it’s only really sensible to define the principles behind pruning them because there will be so many variations in different apple trees. The age, previous pruning history and size are just a few of the factors involved. But with the basic principles firmly in mind even the amateur can make a good job of pruning an apple tree. Those principles are:
- Avoid pruning out fruiting spurs – if you examine an apple tree structure in winter, when there is no foliage, you will be able to see the difference between the current year’s stem growth and older growth. You will also be able to identify fruiting spurs (stems from which fruit will be produced in the summer). To maximise fruit production do not prune the fruiting spurs. We have a page with clear, close-up photos of a three year old tree which shows you exactly how to identify fruiting spurs, current year’s stem growth and older growth. Click here to see the pictures and explanations.
- Aim for a wine glass shape – the basic idea is to encourage branches to point outwards from the main trunk. The reason for this is to keep the central part of the tree relatively free from growth allowing good air circulation and reducing the risk of fungal infections.
- Prune in gentle stages – if you hard prune an apple tree it will fight back the next spring with a vengeance, especially well established trees! Their reaction will be to sprout small stems especially from areas which have been cut back hard. These groups of small stems are almost certainly unproductive as far as as fruit is concerned and the area will become congested. If you are faced with an overgrown tree then spread cutting it back over at least two years, preferably three or four years
- Remove crossing and touching branches – where two branches cross each other, natural movement from wind will cause the branches to rub together and open up the bark to infections. Remove one of the crossing branches to prevent this.
- Remove diseased wood – whilst pruning an apple tree keep a look out for diseased wood. This should always be removed and cut back into healthy wood. Burn the diseased wood.
- Clean up afterwards – fallen branches and fruit, leaves and any other debris should be cleared away from the base of the tree. If left they provide a breeding found for fungal diseases and a variety of pests.
- Enjoy and learn from the experience – many books and web articles on this subject profess to offer perfect solutions to keeping your apple tree in check. In reality every apple tree is different from every other apple tree and your experience from past years should be your guide.
Tip (and partial tip) bearing apple trees produce fruit buds on the the tips of branches (tip bearing) or on the tips and also further down the branches (partial tip bearing). True tip bearing apple trees must be pruned differently from other types of apple trees if they are to produce a reasonable crop. Partial tip bearing apple trees are best pruned slightly differently but will still produce a crop if pruned in the normal manner.
There are very, very few true tip bearing apple trees sold in the UK as our list below shows:
- Barnack Beauty
- Golden Russet
- Irish Peach
Our list of partial tip bearing apple trees below contains quite a few more varieties:
- Adams Pearmain
- Blenheim Orange
- Bramleys Seedling
- Cornish Gilliflower
- Ellison’s Orange
- Flower of Kent
- George Cave
- Granny Smith
- John Downie
- Laxtons Fortune
- Little Pax
- Lord Lambourne
- Worcester Pearmain
PRUNING TIP BEARING APPLE TREES
The basic rule is not to prune these apple these unless they become very congested or large. Any pruning will remove the ends of stems and potentially reduce the apple crop next year. If these tree do need pruning then spread the task out over three years so that not all the tips of the branches are removed at any one time. When selecting branches to prune, try and choose older branches (four years or older) in preference to younger branches which are still capable of bearing fruit.
PRUNING PARTIAL TIP BEARING APPLE TREES
In the first five years of their life this type of apple tree is best left unpruned. By all means prune out crossing, diseased or damaged branches but that’s about it. In subsequent years prune as for normal apples trees but less often and always leave a good proportion of the branches unpruned. When selecting branches to prune, try and choose older branches (four years or older) in preference to younger branches which are still capable of bearing fruit.
COMMENTS / QUESTIONS LEFT BY OUR READERS
|Date: 11 January 2020
|QUESTION: I bought a pot-grown Charles Ross which I intended to plant this winter but now realise needs corrective pruning. It is about 5 feet tall. The central leader has been removed as in your article but leaving only two main branches which themselves have four young branches radiating from them. There are some whippy branches lower down which I planned to remove. It looks like it may have initally been intended as a fan and not trained further. Can I rescue this? If so would it make sense to make a new cut below the two branches and remove them completely with the aim of generating new growth to select from? Or should I leave the two main branches and prune the branches that come from them?
ANSWER: Difficult question without seeing the tree. However, my advice would be to remove the whippy branches lower down first.
That will leave you with two main branches. Ideally you want three or four main branches from the main trunk to create a balanced tree but it does sound like those two remaining branches have young brances already growing from them. If you prune two or three of those branches back to an outward facing bud, ideally pointing sideways from the main branch, you should eventually end up with a tree which relatively balanced.
|Date: 22 July 2019
|QUESTION: My 2year old Ellisons Orange apple tree, it has several apples this year which I thinned in June. The tree has a lot of spindley branches which have grown this year some touching the ground. Should I reduce these before the Winter?
ANSWER: Absolutely yes. Branches, even spindly ones, near the surface of the ground are very open to pests and disease. I would try and keep all the branches at least 60cm / 2foot above ground level at all times.
|Date: 30 March 2019
|QUESTION: Someone gave me a apple tree which was in a large pot and very restricted I planted it in open ground about sept it has growth comeing from it about two thirds of the way up but the rest of it looks dead at the top. Will it be ok or what can I do?
ANSWER: I would wait one more month just to be sure that the top of the tree really is dead. If it is, then the only solution is to prune the main trunk just below where dead stems are, into good wood.
|Date: 23 December 2018
|QUESTION: So glad to find your excellent article. I HAVE rather radically pruned my 20 year old James Grieve tree. You mention how it will surely respond very vigorously. What shall i do to the endless shoots it will put out. Please help. Thank you.
ANSWER: James Grieve is not a particularly vigorous trees but all apple trees will fight back to some degree when pruned. I assume when you refer to “endless shoots” that means water sprouts which can occur around areas where the tree has been pruned.
These will first become noticeable in the late spring. I would wait until mid-summer and prune at least half of them as close to the main stem as possible. Next year, at around the same time, do the same with the remaining ones. Thereafter, just prune the tree as normal
|Date: 15 May 2018
|From: Jane W
|QUESTION: I have a few little trees that I have nurtured from pips. How do I keep the saplings from growing spindly, Do I take off the little shoots like you do with tomatoes?
ANSWER: Apple trees are rather spindly in the first couple of years of their life so until it develops a small canopy I would leave it alone. Because the tree has been grown from a pip you have no real idea how long that might take.
|Date: 21 March 2018
|QUESTION: I bought my current house in March 16 and we have an apple tree in the garden. It looks like the previous owner has done a huge amount of pruning on it. The tree hasn’t flowered or fruited since we moved in. I have noticed recently that some of the bark is coming away. Can the tree be saved? Thanks in advance.
ANSWER: I would give it two more years. What may well have happened is that the drastic pruning has rejuvenated the tree and it is now putting on a growth spurt. This often results in the bark peeling away. It’s quite possible the tree will be fine.
As for the lack of fruit, that may have been caused by the pruning – maybe the majority of the fruiting spurs were removed. They will take three or four years to reappear.
|Date: 24 July 2016
|QUESTION: Around the time of the 1st. W.W. my grandfather planted an apple tree called LADY HENECKER we still have it although trunk and limbs are hollow it still produces excellent fruit but may not last much longer so I took some scions last year and using MM106 grafted 3 root stock earlier this year, all 3 were successful and are now 4-5 ft high they are at present in pots I would like to put them in the ground my question is how do I prune and when, that slender tall scion in order to develop a nice shape tree.
ANSWER: You should be proud of those trees they look in excellent condition. I would prune them this winter when the leaves have fallen and they are fully dormant – January or February is a good time. Follow the instructions given above for a one year old tree (click here).
Bear in mind when you prune the top off that you want three or four branches to form from the buds at about 4 foot high. This makes picking apples and pruning convenient in later years. If you can’t see the buds clearly when you want to prune, cut the top off at about 4ft 6in high.
This pruning will stop the main stem growing taller and force the buds lower down into growth to produce branches. If you are a bit wary of doing this, do it to two of the trees and prune the other two the next year. At that point you will see that the branches have grown well and this will give you confidence.