When to Prune Apple Trees

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Apple Tree Pruning Guide

Has your apple tree grown into an unsightly tangle? Is it becoming too big to manage? Has it not been producing fruit as generously as it has in the past and is looking a bit neglected?

If the answer is yes, then it’s in need of a good prune!

Appletree pruning can be carried out in winter, spring or summer, depending on the type of apple tree you have – standard or restricted – and what your end goal is.

Apple trees can remain healthy and keep producing fruit for 50+ years but they need proper care and attention, which includes their annual prune. Pruning establishes the basic structure of the tree making it easier to maintain. It removes dead, diseased or damaged wood, which in turn keeps the tree healthy and allows sunlight to reach the ripening fruit.

Have you ever wondered why the best fruit always seems to be at the top of the tree? In a nutshell, sunlight exposure – the top of the tree gets the most sun. Helping the rest of the tree access maximum sunlight is primarily what we hope to achieve by pruning. It’s not just about tidying; it’s about shaping the tree for optimum fruiting.

Winter pruning

Growth form: Bush or standard trees i.e. standards, half-standards, dwarf-bush

Reason: Winter pruning encourages strong and rapid growth.

More info: The growth cycle you’re aiming to encourage with winter pruning is simple:

  1. exposure to sunlight
  2. new shoots
  3. more flowers
  4. optimum fruit

Pruning in winter, once the leaves have fallen, gives you a clear picture of the overall shape and structure of your tree;  it keeps your apple tree looking at its best and producing a good-quality crop each season.

Apple trees take up a dormant state after shedding their leaves and before sprouting new buds so the best time to carry out its annual prune is late winter or very early spring before any new growth starts as cuts will heal quickly; cuts made in early winter will be open and unprotected throughout the coldest months until growth resumes in late March.

Specifically, the optimum time to prune is between November and early March and you should be aiming to take between 10-20% of the overall canopy of the tree per annual prune. It may be dark and damp outside, and staying inside in the warm may seem so much more appealing, but the fruits of your labour will be worth the effort… literally!

How to winter prune

  • Remove congested, dead, diseased, damaged or dying branches
  • Shorten the previous year’s growth on each main branch by about one third
  • Only remove young laterals if they are crossing or if the growth is too crowded
  • Remove strong shoots growing towards the centre of the tree
  • On older trees, remove or thin out any spur systems that have become entangled

Spring and summer pruning

Growth form: Restricted forms i.e. spindlebush, stepovers, cordons, espaliers, fans and pyramids.

Reason: Spring and summer pruning exposes the ripening apples to sunlight, aiding the ripening process, and encourages good cropping the following year. 

More info: Ideally, carry out your summer prune when the bottom third of any new shoots are stiff and woody, with dark green leaves and a dense cluster of leaves at the base – this is generally around the 3rd or 4th week in August. To reduce the possibility of secondary growth it can be left until late August however don’t leave it too late – time your summer prune based on the vigour of the plant, the weather and locality.

Bush or standard forms of apple trees  – which should normally only be pruned during winter – can be pruned during the warmer months (between July and September) but ideally, this should be avoided. Unless your apple tree has grown vigorously since its winter prune and has become unsightly and overgrown, stick to pruning during the cooler months. Summer pruning won’t trigger your apple tree into producing lots of new growth, in fact it can do the opposite; your apple tree will already have started to develop fruits so pruning a healthy bush tree unnecessarily will simply hinder growth and have a negative impact on the quality and quantity of apples your tree produces that year.

This said – as mentioned previously – there are exceptions – summer pruning of bush trees can help to bring an apple tree verging on being unmanageable under control. Summer pruning can also be necessary if you need to remove diseased or dead wood.

How to summer prune

  • Cut back new shoots (laterals) more than 20cm long growing from the main stem to three leaves above the basal cluster of leaves.
  • Cut back new shoots growing from existing side shoots (sub-laterals) to one leaf above the basal cluster
  • Remove any upright, vigorous growth completely

If secondary growth occurs after summer pruning, remove this in September. If this problem persists, leave some longer shoots unpruned – doing so will draw up the sap and these will grow at the expense of secondary growth elsewhere. Cut the shoots back to a single bud in spring, as well as any unruly growth which extends above the level of the supporting wire.

Autumn pruning

It’s better to avoid autumn pruning as this can stimulate new growth at a time when the tree is getting ready to go into dormancy.

Frequently Asked Questions

How important is pruning my apple tree?

Pruning your apple tree is very important – it’s not just about tidying; it’s about shaping your tree for optimum fruiting.

Why should I prune my apple tree?

You should prune your apple tree to allow sunlight to access the ripening fruits. It also makes your apple tree easier to maintain and gives you the opportunity to remove any dead or diseased wood.

What tools or equipment do I need to prune my apple tree?

Equipment needed to prune an apple tree: secateurs; loppers (extendable if possible); folding pruning saw; ladder (consider a specialist tripod pruning ladder).
Blunt tools lead to strains and tatty pruning cuts so ensure blades are sharp.

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About Francesca Fitton 108 Articles
I have a passion for gardening and being outdoors. I blog about plant care, technology and tools that I love to use outside and invite you along to watch.

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