Gardening 101: This Is How To Prune An Apple Tree

We’ve all heard the saying that less is more. While we’re not sure if the person who said it had pruning cuts and apple trees in mind, it sure stands true. They are one of the most popular kinds of fruit trees, and one of the top choices when someone decides to plant a tree. When grown and taken care of properly, they are lifelong fruit-producing companions that can become your garden’s crowning glory. Sounds exciting, right? It is! Apart from bearing fruit that is infamous for repelling doctors everywhere, these trees lend gardens an aesthetic appeal that can be very rewarding. 

Autumnal apple grove

However, not all good things come easy. This is especially true when one considers fruit trees like apple trees and pear trees that can be a little high maintenance. Do you already know everything about pruning other plants, like olive trees, camellias, honeysuckles and cherry trees? Regular pruning on top of worries like pests and insufficient production of fruit is not everyone’s cup of tea. For the amateur gardener, this can seem like too much. All hope isn’t lost, though. While requiring precision and patience, pruning apple trees isn’t all that difficult if you do your research. While we can’t help much with precision and patience, we’ve decided to make things easy for you by compiling all things related to pruning one in this short but comprehensive guide. Read on to learn everything you need to know before you go to town with your pruners!

Why you need to prune your apple tree 

It sounds counterintuitive if we want to increase the production of fruit, but it is one of the top actions for getting a healthy, fruitful tree. You may be wondering how cutting out can lead to more growth, and we’re going to answer that question right now. 

To start with an example, you can think of the regular hair trims people get. While most people don’t religiously chop off split ends in their hair every few months, we are all aware that regular trimming leads to healthier hair. It seems counterproductive because not everyone knows the science behind it, but we’ll correct that in a bit. The principle for pruning is somewhat similar. If you don’t get rid of the old, how will you make space for the new? We’ll discuss this, along with all the other advantages of pruning, in this section. 

1. Removing dead, diseased, and injured branches

You know what they say, one bad apple spoils the bunch. While a single lousy fruit won’t ruin an entire tree, a branch is not so kind. Leaving a diseased one on a tree will make other branches vulnerable to the same disease. Similarly, disease and insects are attracted to deadwood, leading to an infestation or fungal infections like canker. Not to mention crossing branches rub against one another’s bark and cause damage while exposing the branch to insects and disease. Pruning these problematic branches nips this threat in the bud, pun intended and protects the main branches of the tree.

2. Stimulating fruit production and encouraging new growth

A fruit tree’s branches, along with its fruits and foliage, are sustained by the root system or rootstock. Allowing too many unnecessary branches to sap resources from the tree will leave fewer nutrients for the main ones and the fruiting spurs and inhibit new growth. Additionally, allowing two leaders or side shoots that are too close together to continue growing will crowd the tree and reduce production.

Apples on a tree branch

As if that wasn’t enough, if the centre of the tree is crowded, the branches and fruiting spurs will not get adequate sunlight. Insufficient sunlight will then lead to flower buds not blooming. This is where pruning mature trees comes in. Pruning increases the vigour of the buds that aren’t pruned, leading to more fruiting. Also, pruning an apple tree will lead to healthier, stronger branches after the growing season.

3. Supporting a strong structure 

While not as crucial as the points above, having a robust and stable structure for your tree also plays a part in the production of fruit. Pruning to create a wineglass goblet shape for your tree will increase the amount of fruit that it yields. Moreover, where the central leader is, the top of the tree gets the most sunlight and produces the best fruit, so most people prefer it if it was at an accessible height. 

During the first few years of the tree’s life, summer pruning can help gardeners get the desired shape for their tree and maintain a certain height. One interesting fact that most people are unaware of is that the tree’s shape during the budding season influences the bloom and fruit quality. Therefore, pruning trees and good fruit production go hand in hand.

When to prune an apple tree

Now that we’ve hopefully convinced you “why” you need to take care of your apple trees, we can move onto the “when”. It’s important to know what time is ideal for pruning your tree and keeping it in its best shape to achieve the best results. After all, if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right. 

So when is the best time to prune? When the tree is dormant and not actively growing. This refers to when there are not any active new growths occurring. Generally, this time falls in the seasons of late winter or early spring. It is easier to cut and trim buds during this time and provide the open-cut wounds the necessary time to heal. This is crucial as the tree needs protection from insects, which arrive in spring, making winter pruning ideal for almost all types of apple trees.

If summer pruning is necessary, it must be done in late July and early August. As a rule of thumb, you should reserve summer pruning for dead and diseased branches, along with older branches that aren’t producing as much fruit anymore since their peak three to five year period has passed. You must be careful while pruning, though, because the process thins and weakens the trees and might affect the upcoming harvest. 

What to avoid under all circumstances is pruning in autumn. That is when the tree is preparing to be dormant for the winter, and pruning at that time can stimulate growth. This can cause problems in your harvest and cause cold damage to the tree. Apart from this, cuts from the pruning may not have enough time to heal and lead to disease.

Man pruning apple tree

Top pruning tips

Ready for some helpful tips? Let’s have a look!

  1. The first and foremost consideration when you want to prune apple trees is the right equipment. The good news is that you don’t need much. A sharp pair of secateurs and loppers for smaller branches and side shoots and pruning saws for larger branches are perfect for the job.
  2. It’s also a good idea to have gloves to not injure yourself when handling these tools. On top of that, it can be helpful to have a cleaning solution and a cloth on hand so that you can clean the pruning tools between snips. We need to do this because pruners can transfer diseases like canker from the diseased wood to healthy branches. On the same note, you should clean the site and remove and burn the diseased branches. Otherwise, if they are left close to the tree, they will attract insects and spread more disease, damaging the tree.
  3. Before pruning, you should try and visualise what the tree will look like afterwards to not over prune. When pruning second-year trees, you must first identify the central leader, which will be a large branch at the top of the tree. Cut out all the competing branches. If there are more than one central leader, choose and cut preferentially, so you are only left with one. Also, figure out which scaffold branches that form the tree’s canopy you will keep and which you will prune. You should aim to be left with only 2-6, ideally 4, main branches that are evenly spaced around the tree. Each branch should face outwards rather than upwards and ideally be at a 45-degree angle from the leader to avoid crowding. The lowest branch should be around 75cm or more above the base of the trunk. The tree should have a pyramid type shape where the upper branches are shorter than the lower branches.
  4. There are two types of cuts: thinning cuts and heading cuts. The former is characterised by a cut made just beyond the base of the branch being pruned. The latter is a cut made just beyond the bud. Heading cuts stimulate growth and shape the tree and are more often used when pruning young trees. On the other hand, thinning cuts are used when removing water sprouts, suckers, and whorls. It is essential to make appropriate cuts during the relevant branch pruning so you don’t accidentally end up stimulating growth in unnecessary branches or cause crowding.
  5. Cut outward-facing growth buds when making heading cuts along the length of the branch to promote more vigorous growth below the cut. This will encourage growth in branches going outwards rather than branches going inwards. You should practice gentle pruning and spacing pruning out over several years for more mature ones so that you don’t get overgrown main or side branches of the tree.
  6. Try to limit the pruning and space it out over several years so that you do not reduce the apple yield for next year. If you must prune tip bearing branches, choose older branches rather than younger ones. 

Step-by-step guide: Pruning an apple tree the right way

Cut young or first-year trees to encourage growth and give them their basic shape and a strong structure. Prune mature trees to maintain the shape and produce fruit.

Farmer pruning an apple tree with pruning shears

Step 1

Cut back all dead, diseased, and damaged wood from the tree to the closest bud on healthy wood. Cut about 15 cm from the main trunk. Then a second cut about 7-8 cm below the first cut. When making cuts, angle them at a wide 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock angle to create a slope. This is important so that rainwater runs off the stem rather than sitting there and damaging it. The cuts will leave you with a stump which you can then cut about 3-4 cm away from the trunk, leaving the branch collar.

Step 2 

Make a thinning cut with secateurs or loppers to prune water sprouts (thin branches that grow straight from lateral branches) and suckers (offshoots that steal nutrients from the fruit tree and are present near the base of the trunk). If there are whorls (multiple branches that originate from the same point on the tree trunk) present, you should select the best one and remove the rest

Additionally, prune crossing branches and downward hanging ones that hang from lateral or scaffold branches. All the branches mentioned here do not bear fruit and should be pruned. Do not prune fruiting spurs

Step 3 

Cut the branches left, the previous year’s growth, to 2/3rds of their length to stimulate stem thickening and flower and fruit development. Leave side-shoots unpruned.  

Step 4

This step only applies to older trees. Spur systems on spur bearing apple tree varieties need to be pruned so that only 4 or 5 fruit buds remain. You can also choose to remove branches with spurs and only leave one branch with the required amount of spurs so that they can become fruits. Where thinning is needed, try and remove the spurs on the underside of the branch where the fruit produced is not of the best quality due to not receiving adequate sunlight.

Step 5

For trees that are neglected or haven’t been pruned for a while, use a pruning saw to remove large branches at their point of origin to open up the tree’s centre. Do not practice hard pruning. Try and space this out over several years. For branches that have grown too large, you can reduce their height by cutting them back to an outward-facing bud or lower-side branch.

Apple trees with many apples on them

Now that we’ve covered the basics, you can be confident in your tree pruning endeavours so that you can get the best fruit yield you possibly can. If you’re still unsure, just remind yourself that the first step is the hardest. New trees in their formative years require the most complicated and regular pruning, after which it is smooth sailing. Now that you’ve read the tips and instructions in this article, you’re almost halfway there anyway. Get excited! The apple tree of your dreams is just a few pruning cuts away!

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