Some gardeners get the raving heebie-jeebies when faced with a pruning task. If you’re a nervous pruner, apple trees are a good place to start – they’re tough plants and very forgiving. But to get the best from them it pays to learn a few simple techniques so you know when, what and how to prune effectively.
So whether you’ve got just one or two apple trees to prune or a whole orchardful, arm yourself with secateurs, loppers and a pruning saw, follow the guidelines below, and fear no more.
When to Prune Apple Trees
Summer pruning of apples helps encourage fruiting and flowering, but winter pruning is essential for controlling their shape and vigour.
Winter pruning commences, unsurprisingly, during the colder months. Don’t be tempted to prune too soon in the belief that doing so in warmer weather will be better for the tree. Pruning apple trees in the autumn can encourage them to send out fresh new shoots that aren’t tough enough to withstand cold weather. Wait until the leaves have fallen off instead. This means that they’re fully dormant and won’t grow any more until the weather warms up.
Pruning apple trees in frosty weather does no harm whatsoever. As long as they’re dormant they won’t mind a little surgery, no matter how low the temperature drops.
How to Prune an Apple Tree
The main aim when pruning is to produce a healthy tree. Aim for a goblet shape with plenty of airflow to the centre of the tree. This helps combat potential issues with fungal diseases and lets in light to ripen the fruits.
There are five main points you need to keep in mind while pruning:
1. Remove the 3Ds.
That’s diseased, dying and dead wood. If the wood shows obvious signs of any malady, amputate it. Make the cut into healthy wood to ensure the problem doesn’t spread.
2. Remove crossing branches.
If two branches cross, they will rub away the bark and potentially provide an entry point for disease. They will also make it harder air to circulate, and make harvesting more awkward.
Try to imagine how the branches will look when weighed down with leaves and fruits; will they rub against a branch below? If you spot two branches that are likely to cross in the future, prune one of them out now. It’s an easier job to make these cuts while they’re still small.
Think of any inward-pointing branches as crossing ones, and remove.
3. Make the biggest cuts first.
You can spend an awful lot of time removing a small dead twig here and a spindly inward-turning shoot there, but when thinking about removing a small branch it’s a good idea to trace it back to the trunk to see if there are other problems first. You might find that it crosses with another further back and that it therefore should be cut out closer to the trunk.
4. Make clean cuts.
Use clean, sharp pruning tools. If you’re doing a lot of pruning you may need to stop occasionally and re-sharpen the blade. High-quality tools will retain an edge for much longer.
Always cut just above a healthy outward-facing bud. This is where next year’s growth will spring from. If you need to remove a whole branch, make your cut close to – but not into – the main branch or trunk. Look for the raised ‘collar’ where the branch joins and cut flush with that.
When using a saw to prune larger branches, first make a shallow undercut before sawing through from above. That way if the branch breaks off as you’re cutting it, it won’t rip off a long section of the tree’s protective bark.
Prune very thick or long limbs in sections. It may seem like more work but it’s much safer, and again it’s less likely to cause damage if the branch breaks under its own weight as you’re cutting.
5. Take your time.
Keep stepping back and checking the overall shape of the canopy to make sure it looks balanced before making your next cut. A little change in perspective can make a big difference!
Pruning New Apple Trees
Young apple trees benefit from ‘heading back’, which helps keep branches compact and sturdy enough to take the weight of lots of fruit. Heading cuts should remove a quarter to a third of the previous season’s growth.
It’s also worth reducing the height of the ‘leader’, or main stem, by the same amount. This redirects the tree’s energy into producing new growth lower down, which makes subsequent pruning and harvesting easier.
Renovation Pruning Neglected Apple Trees
If your apple tree is old and neglected, it’s likely to have developed a scruff of spindly, congested branches and some larger crossing ones too. These will need to be thinned out. This can mean a really big pruning job, but it’s important to pace yourself and not try to do it all at once. Spread it out over two or three winters. Cutting out too much in one go can cause rapid regrowth in spring. This may sound great, but what tends to happen is that the growth is vertical, lush, leafy – and non-fruit-bearing. So take your time! Your arm muscles will thank you too.
Once you’ve finished pruning, step back again and take a final look. The tree should look balanced, without areas of congested growth or any excessively long shoots. There – that wasn’t too scary, was it?