Pruning a new apple tree

Plant the new tree in its dormant period, from November to April, and cut it back to the height where you would like to see new shoots develop. Cutting the central leader encourages the growth of lateral branches from the wood buds below. If the tree already has side branches, leave them in place, and tie them down using string and clothes pegs. Tying down side branches encourages the tree to come into production more quickly. This is because unpruned branches tend to produce more fruit beds when it is held horizontal or below horizontal ty tying. In this way you can begin giving the tree its ideal pyramidal shape without pruning at all. Always seal pruning cuts.

Do you need some expert help in pruning your apple tree? Contact Dan Neuteboom by email (enquiries@realenglishfruit.co.uk) or by using this web form.

How to prune apple trees up to 8 years old

Apples trees less than 8 years old should be pruned in winter and in summer. Winter pruning stimulates tree growth and root growth. Summer pruning keeps tree size under control, diverts energy to fruit growth, and helps regular cropping.

Winter pruning apple trees up to 8 years old

Winter pruning should be performed in the period December-April, when the tree is dormant. Here are the main tips on pruning apple trees in winter:

  1. First, remove any dead, diseased or damaged wood.
  2. If your objective is to grow a tree of manageable size, that crops well and can be harvested without a ladder, you will want a conical shape with four or five lateral branches and a central leader. Look at the tree and decide which branches should be removed to achieve this. It is always best to make as few cuts as possible, by removing a complete branch rather than lots of smaller branches. Your aim will typically be a tree with a central leader and enough lateral branches – generally 4 or 5 – to create a fruiting platform well exposed to sunlight.
  3. For some vigorous varieties such as Bramley, another tree shape that enables good control of tree size is the delayed open centre tree, created by removing the central leader. Watch a video tutorial on the delayed open centre tree.
  4. When removing lateral branches, cut flush with the trunk. Leaving a short stump encourages regrowth at this junction.
  5. Apply heal and seal.
  6. If the young tree needs more structure – more lateral branches – you can encourage this by winter pruning. By cutting above a wood bud, you encourage the growth of new branches from wood buds below the cut.
  7. Learn to tell the difference between wood buds and flower buds, which will be visible from November on. Wood buds are smaller and are flush with the branch. Flower buds are larger, fatter and have a downy surface. To encourage the tree to produce a branch where you want, prune above a wood bud that is facing the required direction. To create an open, pyramid-shaped tree, you will generally prefer outward-facing wood buds.
  8. Remove surplus, unproductive branches. These comprise suckers – thin branches growing from the ground or lower trunk – and longer vertical shoots without fruit bud. These produce just leaf and tend to shade the inner part of the tree.
  9. Examine the branches growing downwards. These are often very productive if light reaching the branch is at an optimum level. If however the branch is fully shaded and no longer needed within the tree structure, then remove it.
  10. Remove crossing branches – a branch that is running over or under another branch. These also create shade, and if they are in contact, the rubbing wound can form an entry point for disease.
  11. Remove vertically-growing branches that are in competition with the central leader. You may have to select the central leader yourself. The decision depends on the position of the branch which should be central and symmetric.
  12. Regulate flower buds. Some apple varieties produce flower buds on short shoots known as spurs. These grow year after year and can develop a lot of fruit bud, causing over-production, smaller, lower-quality fruit. If necessary, shorten spurs down to 4-6 flower buds, or remove some of the spur branches completely.

Summer pruning apple trees up to 8 years old

Summer pruning enables sunlight to reach the ripening fruit, prevents over-cropping, and encourages the production of new spurs and darts for next year’s crop. Summer pruning on apples should be performed in late August in the UK, when the lower parts of new shoots are stiff and woody. The basic principle of summer pruning is to remove vertical shoots that are shading the fruit. Here are the tips on pruning apple trees in summer:

  1. Cut vertical shoots down to a few centimetres above the new spur that will bear next year’s flower bud. Work on the lower part of the tree first. The objective is to achieve a fruiting platform with enough foliage to feed the fruit and the tree.
  2. You will see some shorter vertical shoots that have a terminal bud. These are darts, and they should be left unpruned, because they also will bear the bud for next year’s production.
  3. You will see some vertical growth shoots in the top part of the tree. Because the removal of young shoots in the top part of the tree tends to encourage regrowth, delay this part of summer pruning to late August/early September.
  4. Summer pruning is performed when the tree is fully active and is performed on young wood. So it is not necessary to apply heal and seal to wounds.

How to prune apple trees more than 8 years old

The tree has now reached its prime, and it has attained its mature structure. At this stage, winter pruning maintains desired tree size. Summer pruning prevents overcropping, creates healthy spurs and darts, and keeps the tree structure open to sunlight, for optimum fruit ripening.

Winter pruning apple trees over 8 years old

Free-standing apple trees can be pruned in winter every year to reduce excess old wood. Winter pruning can be performed from November to early March, though we recommend pruning in early March, just before growth recommences. Here are the tips on winter pruning apple trees over 8 years old:

  1. First, remove any dead, diseased or damaged branches.
  2. Remove crossing branches.
  3. Then look at the overall structure. If the tree has not been pruned regularly, it may be necessary to remove some complete lateral branches in order to restore a fruiting platform with four or five lateral branches. Cut about 3 cm from the trunk.
  4. Remove vertical branches that are competing with the central leader.
  5. Look at the lateral branches and identify the previous year’s growth. Cut back this growth by about a third, back to a wood bud facing upwards and outwards.
  6. Do not prune the young side shoots (young laterals) growing from the main lateral branches. These will develop fruit buds next year. Only remove them if they are too crowded, closer than about 6 inches, 15 cm, at the base.
  7. Remove any strong shoots growing towards the centre.
  8. Regulate flower buds. Some apple varieties produce flower buds on short shoots known as spurs. These grow year after year and can develop a lot of fruit bud, causing over-production and smaller, lower-quality fruit. If necessary, shorten spurs down to 4-6 flower buds, or remove some of the spur branches completely, choosing those growing downwards or below the branches, where fruit will be in shade.

Watch a video tutorial on winter pruning a mature apple tree.

Summer pruning apple trees over 8 years old

Regarding pruning apple trees over 8 years old in summer, it is important to summer prune every year, because this enables the tree size to be controlled. Winter pruning increases tree size.

For summer pruning, timing is critical. In addition to controlling tree size, summer pruning improves the colour of the fruit. This is best achieved from 10 to 14 days before the fruit is picked. As a general guide, summer pruning should be done in the period June-September. Here are the tips on pruning apple trees over 8 years old in summer:

  1. Cut vertical shoots down to a few centimetres above the new spur that will bear next year’s flower bud. Work on the lower part of the tree first. The objective is to achieve a fruiting platform with enough foliage to feed the fruit and the tree.
  2. You will see some shorter vertical shoots that have a terminal bud. These are darts, and the 2-year-old darts should be left unpruned, because they also will bear the bud for next year’s production.
  3. Likewise, retain the fruiting spurs and the younger wood.
  4. Remove vertical growth shoots in the top part of the tree, but in moderation. The removal of shoots in the top part of the tree encourages stronger tree growth.
  5. If you have to make any large cuts on branches, seal wounds with “heal and seal” available from garden centres. It is not necessary to seal the cuts on 1-year-old wood.

Watch a video tutorial on summer pruning apple trees.

How to prune tip-bearing apple trees

Most apple trees are spur-bearers, producing fruit bud on two-year-old wood, and on the short, wrinkled spurs that develop on older wood. Examples include Cox’s Orange Pippin, James Grieve, Sunset, Emmeth Early, Greensleeves, Lanes Prince Albert and others.

A few varieties are tip bearers, in which fruit bud grows at the tips of 2-year-old wood. Examples are Irish Peach and Cornish Gillflower.

Pruning true tip-bearing varieties requires care because it is easy to remove all the shoots that will produce next year’s crop.

Here are the steps in winter pruning a tip-bearing apple tree:

  1. Cut back the central leader by about a third, back to a wood bud.
  2. Look at the lateral branches and you will see new side shoots. If they are less than about 20 cm, 9 inches long, leave them unpruned, because they will bear flower bud, hence fruit, at their tips next year. Shoots longer than this can be pruned back to about 15 cm, 6 inches, to encourage the growth of new shoots next year, which will crop the year after that.

Summer pruning on tip-bearing apple trees can be performed as for spur-bearers as detailed above, taking care to preserve the shoots that will produce fruit over the next two years.

How to prune espalier apple trees

Espalier apple trees are pruned in summer, typically in late August. Here are the steps involved in pruning espalier apple trees:

  1. Shoots growing from the horizontal trained branches should be cut back to three leaves above the basal cluster.
  2. Shoots growing from shoots pruned last year can be cut back to one leaf above the basal cluster.
  3. Remove any side shoots growing from the vertical stem.
  4. More shoots may develop after the late August pruning. These can be removed in September, cutting at the base.
  5. If new shoots continue growing, remove them in early March.

Pruning apple trees to promote tree size

Normally the objective in apple tree pruning is to keep the tree to a manageable size. If on the other hand we want a large tree, the pruning technique will be different. Here are some tips on pruning apple trees to promote size:

  1. Ideally the tree will be on a semi-vigorous or vigorous rootstock, typically MM106.
  2. Ensure that grass and weeds are not growing in a 1-metre diameter circle around the tree.
  3. Make sure that the roots have enough moisture, and protect the trunk using a tree guard.
  4. Ensure that the tree has enough nitrogen in the soil. In its early years, this can be achieved by adding well-rotted farmyard manure to the soil when planting.
  5. As regards pruning, some varieties are so fertile that they produce lots of fruit already in the second year. This will reduce shoot growth. The best way of overcoming this problem is to prune back the young shoots by a third during winter pruning. Thin the fruit when it is at the fruitlet stage.
  6. In winter pruning, start by removing any dead, diseased or damaged wood.
  7. Then work on the main structure, removing complete branches if necessary, crossing branches, branches growing towards the centre, and branches growing upwards in competition with the top branches already present. The objective is to ensure that light can penetrate right into the centre of the tree.
  8. In summer pruning, which should be done before the end of September, cut vertical shoots down to a few centimetres above the new spur that will bear next year’s flower bud. Work on the lower part of the tree first. The objective is to achieve a fruiting platform with enough foliage to feed the fruit and the tree.
  9. You will see some shorter vertical shoots that have a terminal bud. These are darts, and the 2-year-old darts should be left unpruned, because they also will bear the bud for next year’s production.
  10. Likewise, retain the fruiting spurs and the younger wood.
  11. Remove vertical growth shoots in the top part of the tree.
  12. If you have to make any large cuts on branches, seal wounds with “heal and seal” available from garden centres. It is not necessary to seal the cuts on 1-year-old wood.

How to prune young, over-vigorous apple trees

If soil conditions are favourable and the trees are growing very strongly, any type of pruning will further delay getting the trees into cropping. Encourage the development of the central leader by light tipping, to stimulate the tree to make useful short side branches. This will encourage fruit bud production. Remember that the energy needed for growing one pound (half a kilo) of fruit is equivalent to the formation of 3 feet (90 cm) of growth. Therefore a regular crop is the best way of controlling excessive wood growth. Follow the instructions for pruning apple trees in the sections above, and help reduce tree vigour by also following these recommendations.

  1. Encourage the newly-planted tree to crop by not pruning at all after planting, except for cutting back the central leader.
  2. Tie branches down, high branches under the leader slightly below horizontal, in the middle of the tree horizontal, in the bottom of the tree slightly upwards. Watch a video tutorial on tying down fruit tree branches.
  3. Do not use fertilizer or organic feed until cropping has become established.

How to prune young, under-vigorous apple trees

Follow the instructions in the sections above for pruning apple trees under 8 years old, with these extra considerations to promote growth:

  1. Winter pruning: cut back one-year-old shoots by about a third, cutting back to just above a wood bud. Prune early in winter, say late November. Regulate the amount of fruit bud on the tree by shortening or completely removing some spurs as necessary. If the tree fruits too heavily, it won’t have enough energy for growth.
  2. Help the main lateral branches to achieve an angle of growing slightly upwards from horizontal by tying up if necessary.
  3. Ensure that the trees is never short of water.
  4. Provide nutrients, best with well-rotted farmyard manure applied in winter.
  5. If possible, place a straw mulch around the tree, ensuring that the straw is kept a few inches away from the trunk to prevent mice damage.

How to prune apple trees that have gone out of hand

Follow the instructions in the sections above (pruning trees over 8 years old) with these extra considerations:

  1. Summer prune the tree as soon as picking has been completed.
  2. In winter pruning, restore a correct architecture by retaining about 4-5 lateral branches on the main fruiting platform, and cutting out all thick branches towards the top of the tree with the exception of the main leader. The objective is to restore a triangular shape to the canopy.
  3. Encourage the tree to crop by retaining the fruiting spurs and the younger wood, and the two-year-old short darts.
  4. The following winter, do not prune at all.

Watch a video tutorial on pruning a 50-year-old Bramley tree.