Horticulture Magazine

How To Prune An Apple Tree Effectively

an apple tree with fruits in an orchard

Apple trees can be a great, relatively low maintenance option for many temperate climate gardens, but learning how to prune effectively will keep your tree healthy.

Apple trees, especially once established, require little time and effort. If you place your apple tree in the right place, it will likely need little care from you. But there are a few annual jobs to take care of, and pruning is one of those jobs.

Why Prune an Apple Tree?

close up of a hand holding secateurs and pruning an apple tree
Apple tree pruning

Garden apple trees are typically pruned for a number of reasons. And if you are clear about your reasons for pruning, this can help you do so correctly and effectively. The main reasons to prune an apple tree are:

  • For the health of the tree.
  • To maintain or reduce their size.
  • For shape/form (when trees are espaliered, pleached, fans, or columnar in shape).

The first of these is definitely the most important, and will be a type of pruning required for all apple trees.

Pruning an Apple Tree for Health

The primary goals when pruning an apple tree for health are two-fold. Firstly, you will prune to create a tree without dead, damaged or diseased material. By removing the ‘three D’s’ from the tree, you can keep it healthier, and ensure that the tree is able to put all its energy into flowering and fruiting successfully.

Once any dead, damaged or diseased branches have been removed, you should next prune to create an open canopy and to prevent future damage or congestion problems.

  • Prune to create a goblet shaped structure on bush and standard tree forms. This allows light to penetrate the heart of the canopy more effectively. And can allow fruits to ripen well and increase yield later in the year.
  • Remove branches which rub up against others causing damage when moving in the wind, or which are touching or almost touching.
  • Judiciously thin the branches to create an open structure. A bird should be able to fly between all branches. Look at an apple tree from all angles and remove branches and twigs as required to open up the canopy.
  • Shorten the growth of the previous year on each primary branch by about 1/3, to a bud facing in the right direction. This encourages the development of healthy new branches and fruit producing spurs.

Pruning Apple Trees for Size

a large branch of a mature apple tree that has been cut
You will need a pruning saw to remove larger branches on an overgrown mature tree

If you have a mature and overgrown apple tree in your garden, you may wish to prune to reduce the size of a particular tree. You may wish to reduce the size of an apple tree because it has outstripped local resources and needs to be smaller for its own best health.

You might also prune an apple tree because it is casting too much shade, or competing too vigorously with other plants nearby. Or you might prune because a particular apple tree is obscuring your view, or simply because it has grown too large to harvest easily.

When pruning a mature apple tree to reduce size, it is important to be patient. Some very overgrown mature apple trees will need to be pruned in stages over several years. Avoid taking off more than 1/3 of the canopy in one pruning session, even when a more drastic reduction in size is desired.

Taking too much material off all at once can damage the trees, and put them under strain. It can also be counterproductive as heavily pruned apple trees can put on a lot of new vertical growth, which can spoil the look and shape of mature trees. Renovation pruning can breathe new life into an older tree as well as reducing it in size.

You may also wish to regulate size once a tree has reached an optimum size for the rootstock onto which it has been grafted. Regulated pruning maintains an ideal size without affecting the fruiting potential of the tree. In general, a rule of thumb with regulated pruning is to prune out no more than 10-20% of the canopy each year. Tip pruning laterals on overly vigorous trees can also help check their growth.

Pruning Apple Trees for Shape

On bush and standard trees, pruning for shape is usually a simple aesthetic consideration. Just take a step back and look at the overall shape of the tree as you prune for health or size.

If you are training a young tree into a particular form, then pruning will be a little more complex. Intricacies of formative pruning will depend on the specific trees you have chosen to grow, and the shape you wish it to take. Apple trees can be trained into espaliers, fans, pyramids, columns/cordons  or even into step-over hedges if a dwarfing rootstock has been used.

When To Prune an Apple Tree

apple tree being pruned in the summer sun
Summer pruning

Bush and standard apple trees should be pruned for health, formative pruning (for young bush/standard trees) regulation pruning (to maintain size) and renovation pruning (or overgrown mature trees) should be carried out during the dormant period, between November and March. In areas with wetter winters, it can be a good idea to wait until late winter or very early spring. However, apple trees are generally resilient, and, unlike other fruit trees like plums and cherries, will not typically experience any problems after being pruned any time during the winter months.

Bush or standard forms which are overly vigorous may additionally be pruned in summer. In this type of summer pruning, more vigorous laterals longer than 30cm are reduced in length by around half all over the tree between mid-August and September.

Shaped apple trees in restricted forms -espaliers, fans, pyramids, cordons etc. are typically pruned in summer to maintain their shape. This type of pruning is undertaken in mid to late August, once the bottom third of new shoots has become stiff and woody and the possibility of secondary growth is reduced. The goal is to cut back new shoots to maintain shape, and allow light to reach maturing fruit.

Choosing the Right Tools To Prune Apple Trees

Pruning methods and timings will depend to a large degree on the apple tree variety you are growing, and on your goals. Remember, methods will differ depending on the reasons for pruning. But no matter what type of pruning you are undertaking on your apple tree, certain things remain the same.

One important thing is to make sure that you have the right tools for the job. All tools must be clean, and, crucially, must be sharp. Blunt pruning tools can do a lot of damage to your tree. Make sure you have sharp secateurs, loppers (and pruning saw where larger branches must be removed) for the job.

Thinking about the pruning requirements for a particular apple tree can help you decide whether or not a particular tree will be the right choice for you and your garden. Typically, standard or bush forms will require the least work, and are the easiest to prune. Other shaped trees can be very useful for small space gardens. But it is important to note that pruning shaped trees is a little more complex, and will take a bit more work over time.

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