Pruning apple trees: when & how?

Kati
Kati
Kati
Kati

I am a qualified gardener and horticulturalist and love everything that grows! Whether it's a shrub, a tree, a useful plant or a supposed weed: for me, every plant is a little miracle.
In the garden I look after my 13 chickens, grow fruit & vegetables and otherwise observe how nature manages and shapes itself.

Favourite fruit: Blueberry, apple
Favourite vegetables: Braised cucumber, kale, green pepper

Pruning apple trees requires a lot of know-how and can seem daunting. But with our handy guide, you will know when and how to prune apple trees for the best results.

pruning small branch from tree
Pruning apple trees is easier said than done [Photo: Pavlo Burdyak/ Shutterstock.com]

Pruning your apple tree is an important maintenance and care task that helps to maintain a healthy tree and a balanced harvest year after year.

Why should you prune apple trees?

If you look at an apple tree (Malus), you will be able to pick out the different types of shoots and branches. There are long, richly-leafed branches that hardly bear fruit, and short, twisted and very old fruiting shoots, which produce flowers and fruit for several years in a row. Both are important.

Although we want fruit-bearing shoots for our apple harvest, it is primarily the leafy shoots that carry out photosynthesis and nourish the tree, making it possible for the apple tree to produce large and tasty fruit. Balancing the growth of vegetative and generative wood is the most important goal when pruning apple trees.

Damaged and diseased branches need to be removed during pruning, while thinning the crown can also help make harvesting easier and prevent disease. The oldest branches should be removed to allow for new fruiting wood to grow.

tree branches covered in frost
Lots of fruiting branches means lots of fruit, but apple trees need leaves too [Photo: key_keeper/ Shutterstock.com]

Note: the question regularly comes up as to whether apple tree pruning is even necessary. Apple trees are plants that have undergone extensive breeding. They can survive without human care; however, they are often affected by disease and stunted growth, so we do recommend pruning.

When to prune an apple tree

When is the best time to prune apple trees? Many home gardeners are aware that apple trees should be pruned between December and March. Did you know that an apple tree can also be pruned in summer but for a different reason? Read on to learn the difference between summer and winter apple tree pruning.

pruning a bare apple tree
Winter is the most common season for pruning apple trees [Photo: agrofruti/ Shutterstock.com]

Pruning apple trees in summer

Pruning apple trees in summer optimises the harvest and is mainly done for professional cultivation; it is rarely done in home gardens. Unless you make a living from your apple trees, you will not need to reach for the secateurs in summer. Pruning apple trees in summer allows the fruit to receive more sunlight, resulting in a more appealing colouring and a slightly improved storability.

Here is a quick guide to pruning apple trees in summer:

  • Summer pruning takes place from July to September. The fruits should be nearly fully developed. For the home garden, we recommend pruning in late summer.
  • Caution: pruning too early in the summer can result in underdeveloped fruit.
  • Shorten or remove branches and shoots that shade the fruit on the tree. Take care not to cut off too many foliage-bearing branches, as this can cause the apples to be less sweet.
  • Remove any old branches that no longer bear good fruit.
pruning apple tree with handsaw
Summer pruning involves removing old or overgrown branches and water sprouts [Photo: Irina Buu/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: some apple tree varieties grow faster than others. Summer pruning is only necessary for very vigorous varieties. Trees that produce little vegetative growth should not be stripped of their leafy branches in summer.

Pruning apple trees in winter

The most important time to prune an apple tree is in winter. Winter pruning is usually done between December and March. The apple trees are dormant and bare, making it easier to see and plan where to prune. Pruning apple trees in winter helps to strengthen, maintain or renew the crown.

Pruning in early or late winter can also affect how your apple tree reacts to pruning. Early winter pruning promotes strong new shoots, whereas late winter pruning stimulates weaker reactions.

Below is an explanation of the different pruning methods to help you get ready to prune your apple trees in winter.

pruning cut with ragged edges
A pruning cut with ragged edges should be made smooth [Photo: agrofruti/ Shutterstock.com]

Expert tip: winter frost is generally not a problem when it comes to pruning apple trees in winter. As a rule, apple trees are frost tolerant to temperatures as low as – 5 °C.

How to prune an apple tree

So, now we know when and why to prune apple trees. But how exactly do you prune an apple tree? These are the important steps for pruning apple trees in winter.

Note: many amateur gardeners make the mistake of trying to prune tall apple trees to make them shorter. Unfortunately, the variety and the grafting rootstock have the biggest influence on the growth habit. Pruning trees that grow strongly leads to an even stronger reaction, i.e. they grow even larger. To keep apple trees on the smaller side, prune counterintuitively: prune vigorous trees as little as possible and slow-growing trees more.

Identifying and assessing fruiting spurs

Apple trees are typically grown in gardens for their fruit – these fruits grow from fruiting spurs. The spurs are short, branched shoots that grow from the sides of longer, older wood. On these short spurs the fruit and leaf buds grow and come spring they blossom into flowers and leaves. Fruiting spurs produce flowers and fruits several years in a row, growing a few centimetres longer each year.

It is easy to recognise old fruiting spurs, as they become twisted and produce small fruits. Young fruiting spurs develop laterally on 2-year-old wood and produce larger, healthier fruits. One of the goals of pruning is to encourage and protect new young fruiting spurs while removing old ones.

fruiting shoots and apples
Here you can see many of the short fruiting shoots [Photo: Tobias Filke/ Shutterstock.com]

Winter pruning in a nutshell

1. Use the right tools

It is important to use the right tools when pruning, as the wrong tools can do the tree more harm than good. Pruning tools must be sharp in order to make clean cuts. Then, depending on the location and thickness of the branches you wish to prune, secateurs, pruning saws, telescopic shears and telescopic saws are suitable for apple tree pruning. However, do not use loppers because they cannot be manoeuvred precisely enough. The same is true for motorised saws, which leave behind a frayed cutting surface that is difficult for the tree to seal off. A sharp garden knife or a pruning knife can be used to carefully smooth the edges of large cut areas.

As a general rule: it is better to use a ladder and hand tools rather than telescopic tools for pruning hard to reach spots. This is due to the fact that the cuts made by telescopic tools are often imprecise, increasing the risk of undesirable effects, such as disease or increased sprouting of water shoots.

person standing on a ladder
A ladder is essential when pruning apple trees [Photo: Natalia Lebedinskaia/ Shutterstock.com]

2. Follow the 3 rules for apple tree pruning

  • The most important rule for pruning apple trees is to cut branches at the branch collar. The branch collar is the small, slightly thicker section visible at the base of each branch. Do not leave too much stub though, as this allows unwanted side shoots to develop later in spring, which would then need to be removed. If a branch is cut off too deeply, the tree will have trouble sealing off the wound, increasing the risk of fungal disease
a well-done pruning cut
Here is an example of a pruning cut done correctly [Photo: agrofruti/ Shutterstock.com]
  • It is also important that apple tree branches and shoots are not pruned just anywhere. In other words, do not just cut off a young or old branch anywhere along its length. Instead, either prune off a branch completely or shorten its length. Making a heading cut just above a lateral branch redirects the tree’s energy to the side branch, encouraging growth and branching. If an apple tree is simply “cut”, several side shoots will sprout uncontrollably from below the cut, most of which will have to be painstakingly removed later. As a result, we recommend that you refrain from simply lopping off the top of your apple tree.
person removing a strong branch
Here a stronger branch is headed back to encourage growth from the smaller branches [Photo: agrofruti/ Shutterstock.com]
  • The higher and more vertical a branch grows, the stronger it will become in the future. It is important to maintain the dominance of the leading branch(es) in order to prevent uncontrolled sprouting of many side branches. This leading vertical branch is often referred to as a central leader, however, it can be a few branches in the case of open centre apple trees. Make sure the leaders are always the tallest part of the apple tree, and prune back any side branches that are nearly as tall as the leaders. All side branches must be shorter than the central leader, as the highest point of the apple tree is where it is most dominant and vigorous.
apple trees with water sprouts
Here, many vertical shoots compete for sunshine, but they produce little fruit [Photo: Kazakov Maksim/ Shutterstock.com]

3. Decide which branches need removing

  • First and foremost, look for dead or diseased branches, which should always be removed. Prune back branches that are broken, hollow or infected with apple canker.
  • Remove any branches growing inwards toward the centre of the tree. Strong branches that grow inwards should be removed as soon as possible before they cause too many wounds by crossing other branches.
apple canker on a branch
Branches infested with apple canker should be removed right away

Apple tree pruning overview

  • Vigorous trees are pruned shortly before budding in early spring. Slow-growing apple trees are pruned in early winter.
  • The goal is to establish the desired crown shape, such as a central leader or an open centre.
  • The number of branches may be limited depending on the condition of the young apple tree.
  • Prune the tips of the existing branches to make more shoots available for the crown structure.
  • Remove any problematic branches that are too close together, cross over each other or compete for space.
apple tree with open centre
This young apple tree has been shaped to have an open centre [Photo: trancedrumer/ Shutterstock.com]

Pruning young apple trees (< 10 years old)

  • Identify the leading branch(es): an apple tree with a central axis must have a top. This ensures that side branches do not sprout too many leaves. The leading branch must never be cut, but it may be diverted. Open centre apple trees have several leading branches.
  • Identify lateral leading branches that you want to keep in the crown permanently and remove competing branches. Leading lateral branches should extend from the trunk at a shallow angle, but not completely horizontally.
  • Cut off steeply upward or downward pointing shoots and any branches that compete with leading branches.
  • Remove inward growing shoots after two years at the latest; you may still be able to harvest some fruit from them in the meantime.
  • Shorten leading lateral branches if necessary to redirect their energy to suitable side branches.
person pruning a leading branch
Leading branches can be diverted to side shoots [Photo: sima/ Shutterstock.com]

Pruning mature apple trees (> 10 years old)

  • Cut out dead, damaged or diseased branches.
  • Prune leading branches to redirect the tree’s energy to younger side branches with fruiting spurs.
  • If necessary, prune leading shoots toredirect the tree’s energy to smaller lateral shoots and slow down growth to a minimum.
  • Always remove steeply ascending branches that are not leading branches.
  • Remove inward growing branches − they can be left for up to two years for harvesting apples.
  • Prune out old branches that do not bear leaves nor abundant fruit in favour of younger branches. Signs to look for: small fruits and not many new shoots.
Apple tree full of apples
With a good apple-bearing tree, the goal is to maintain it [Photo: Ron Zmiri/ Shutterstock.com]

Pruning old apple trees: rejuvenation pruning

  • Rejuvenation pruning is carried out on trees that hardly produce any new shoots and bear many small apples. The goal is to stimulate the growth of new fruiting spurs. To do this, you may have to cut back a very old apple tree drastically, leaving only a few branches.
  • This pruning should be done in winter to provoke the strongest possible reaction.
  • Make sure that it is dry and sunny outside; this will help the tree to seal off any wounds.
  • Pruning sealer can be painted on large wounds caused by pruning.
  • The tree will only produce a small number of apples for the first couple of years following a rejuvenation pruning.
  • Remove all dead, diseased or damaged wood and especially, dense and old sections without any new shoots.
  • If the old tree has too few new shoots to cut back to, you can leave behind stubs when pruning rather than pruning right up to the branch collar. Many new shoots will then grow from these stubs.
  • The following year, observe how and where the old tree sprouts. Use these sprouts to grow a new crown.
  • You can also prune branches in subsequent years to encourage more branching.
old branches full of apples
Old apple trees with small fruit may require some radical pruning [Photo: Annie Pea/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: if the old apple tree has very few or no young shoots, it may be advantageous to prune it in stages. Prune it very heavily in the first year, leaving behind just a few branches. The next year, when it has sprouted again at the base, cut back the old part of the apple tree completely. We also highly recommend that you fertilise any weakly-growing apple trees to support them and promote growth. In February, feed the apple tree with a primarily organic, nitrogen-rich fertiliser, like our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food. As it has a long-lasting effect, it continues to supply nutrients as the tree’s buds begin to open.

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Recognising and removing water shoots on apple trees

Water shoots on apple trees are those that grow steeply upwards. They are typically found inside the tree’s crown and, when a tree that has not been pruned in a long time is cut back severely, many water shoots will develop with the new growth. The bark on water shoots is usually much lighter and the wood is softer. Water shoots can be removed each time the tree is pruned and always prune water shoots off at the base to prevent additional water shoots emerging from any stubs.

lady in an apple tree
Some varieties are prone to water sprouts, but they are also provoked by pruning [Photo: Roman023_photograph/ Shutterstock.com]

The apple variety ‘Merkur’ is still in its infancy. It is a rewarding insider tip for hobby gardeners due to its robustness and the storability of its fruit. ‘Merkur’ grows moderately vigorously, making it low-maintenance when it comes to pruning.

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