How To Prune Apple & Fruit Trees | Love The Garden

How to Prune Apple Trees

Lucy Pitts's picture
By Lucy Pitts, Garden Enthusiast
A full apple tree branch.

Apple trees. They’re delightful, delicious and deciduous (of course) with their pretty blossom heralding the arrival of spring, their leafy, lazy days of summer glory and their diverse and versatile fruit, so full of autumn atmosphere. But when it comes to pruning your apple trees, it can seem a little daunting can’t it?

So Why Prune?

In a nutshell, pruning your apple tree ensures a healthy tree, stimulates growth and makes sure that your apple tree continues to produce an abundance of beautiful, tasty fruit, year after year. Not to mention all the benefits of regular fruit.

By pruning you allow light and air to the centre of the tree and that all helps the fruit to grow and ripen and reduces the risk of mildew or other problems. Pruning also makes sure you keep a great shaped tree that looks good and fits nicely into your orchard or garden.

Pruned apple trees in winter.

When to Prune?

Apple trees need to be pruned in the winter, between November and March ideally when the leaves have fallen and the tree isn’t yet in bud. If you prune in late summer or spring it will reduce the amount of growth.  

What am I Going to Need?

Banish any thoughts of chainsaws and trips to Accident and Emergency for a start. A good pair of clean, sharp secateurs, a pruning saw and / or a pair of loppers and a pair of good gloves should be just fine. And you may also need a ladder.

The tools required to prune an apple tree.

How to Get Started

Start by cutting away any dead, damaged or diseased wood which will or should be obvious. And if it’s diseased, do make sure you dispose of it properly. Then take a step back and have a good look.

If there are branches growing into each other, across each other or growing into the centre of the tree, that’s the next place to prune. Start at the centre and thin out the stems, cutting back to the good, strong wood of a branch.

And then consider the age of your tree. If it is still in the growth stages you may not want to take too much off the height. But if it’s as tall as you want it, you may want to cut back a bit more.

And if your apple tree has been neglected, it may be thick with dead wood and over growth so it could take a few seasons of pruning to gently get it back into the best of condition.

Ways to prune an apple tree.

How Much Shall I Cut?

You want your tree to have a nice shape and that means you want to have 4 or 5 main branches with more volume at the base of the tree (excluding the trunk) and less at the top so that it has a pyramid type shape.

You also want a nice open centre to allow light in for optimum cell growth. Then as a rough rule of thumb, cut back the side shoots by about one third, always cutting just above an outward facing bud.

Make sure you leave at least half of the previous year’s growth unpruned, to ensure that you have the right balance between existing and new shoots. Last year’s growth will be bearing next season’s growth and you want to continue to get a great crop of apples, year in, year out.

Successfully pruned apple trees.

A Few Do’s and Don’ts

  • If you do need to use a ladder, consider using a special pruning ladder or get someone to help you.
  • Try to make sure you prune evenly around the tree. If all your pruning is in one area or uneven, all your vigorous regrowth will be in that area. That won’t just result in an odd looking, unbalanced tree, it won’t help fruit production either. And don’t just trim off all the ends. You want to carefully and selectively thin out the tree, not give it a short back and sides.
  • Don’t go mad! You want to try and prune about one third off the total tree. But don’t be shy either. Neither under nor over pruning will help your apple tree.
  • Resist the temptation to chop of a thick main branch unless absolutely necessary
Well pruned, healthy apple trees.

Pruning your apple tree is an important part of its care and maintenance so it is important to work it into your gardening calendar. If you are nervous, don’t be afraid to ask an expert to help, even if just for the first time. It’s likely to be money well spent.

Apple trees are surely one of our great British plants, not only with so many different varieties of apples but because they really do typify our countryside. We’d love to hear about your apples and trees. Have you got any questions about pruning, any favourite variety or tips or perhaps a childhood memory? Share them with us on our social pages or leave us a comment below - and happy pruning!

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