Apple Tree Care: When And How To Prune An Apple Tree

Apple trees may make great shade trees, but if your primary purpose in planting is to garner the delicious fruit, you need to pull out those pruning shears and get to work. Let’s learn how and when to prune apple trees to get the most from your apple harvest.

Apple tree trimming is beneficial for several reasons: removing diseased or damaged limbs, maintaining a controlled height from which fruit may be more easily picked, developing a strong structure for fruit production, and encouraging new limbs.

Pruning apple trees is essential to the overall health of the tree. The shape of the apple tree during the budding season and following winter will influence the number of flowers, and hence the condition of fruit.

Pruning not only increases sunlight, shapes the tree and removes limbs that are unnecessary, but also promotes the size of the apple, uniform ripening, ups the sugar content, and decreases insects and diseases by allowing for better overall spray coverage and efficient drying post rain shower.

When to Prune Apple Trees

Although apple tree trimming may be accomplished any time of the year, late winter to very early spring is most advisable (March and April), after the worst of

the cold snaps to minimize possible injury due to frost.

On a mature fruit producing apple tree, pruning should remove the older, less fruit productive branches after their peak three to five year period. Summer is the best time to remove these older limbs when it is most obvious which ones those are. It is also a good time to prune diseased or damaged areas of the apple tree as they become visible.

Do not prune an older “shade” tree back to the size of a fruiting apple tree in one season. Spread the thinning out over a couple of years as part of your routine apple tree care.

How to Prune an Apple Tree

There are several points to consider when pruning an apple tree: distance from the central branch to a lateral branch before cutting, angle, leaving any water sprouts, shortening limbs or taking all the way down to the trunk of the apple tree, to name a few.

On neglected or overly vigorous apple trees, prune heavily. Go for it, except as mentioned above on a “shade” tree, wherein pruning should be spaced out over several years. Do not prune too closely. Make your heading cut just beyond a bud and thinning cuts beyond the base of the branch being discarded. Use a saw for large limbs, hand pruners for twigs and loppers for medium branches.

Water sprouts, or suckers, are vibrant offshoots, which suck the nutrients away from the apple tree, resulting in lower apple production. Usually found at the base of the apple tree or along its crotches, they generally should be removed. On occasion, they may be left to fill in an open area.

Remove any branches that grow downward, rub, shade or generally impede the growth of the apple tree’s scaffold branches. Head back any suckers or branches that are taller than the uppermost buds of the trunk.

Whorls are found when branches intersect and originate at the same location on the trunk or branch. Select the best and remove the others.

Remember, you are creating a canopy that encourages sunlight, and access to spraying and harvesting. Resist the fast and easy approach to “top” your apple tree to inhibit its growth. This may result in more fruit production for a couple of years, but in the long run proposes a weak apple tree structure. Utilize the correct tools, some gumption, and enjoy your next bumper crop of apples.

Pruning Peach Trees

Pruning is a very important part of proper peach tree care and maintenance; however, many people think the task overwhelming or too complicated. It doesn’t have to be! Keep these things in mind:

  • Have confidence in knowing that not everyone will prune the exact same way — including the experts.
  • There are three main reasons you should prune your peach tree: its survival, stimulation, and shaping. In the best interest of your tree, it is preferable to do some pruning versus no pruning.
  • If a peach tree is left unpruned, it may not become fruitful, it will not grow as well, and — in some cases — it may not be encouraged to grow at all.

NOTE: This is part 8 in a series of 11 articles. For a complete background on how to grow peach trees, we recommend starting from the beginning.

When your peach tree is dug up from our fields to be shipped to you (and any time a tree is transplanted) the root ball loses many of its fine feeder roots. These hairlike, delicate roots are important to the process of absorbing moisture and nutrients in the soil. Pruning, in this instance, helps balance the top growth of your tree with the root system, giving the roots time to re-establish in your yard to support existing top growth and new growth.

When your bare-root peach tree arrives from Stark Bro’s, our professionals have already pre-pruned your tree for you. Because of this, you do not need to prune them again at planting time. The only pruning necessary at planting time would be to remove any broken or damaged branches and roots.

Plan to prune your peach trees every year during their dormant season. In Zone 6 and north, you should wait until late winter. A good reference book (we recommend Pruning Made Easy), is invaluable for providing additional visuals and in-depth answers to questions you may have about pruning.

In addition to the survival benefits, pruning a peach tree stimulates stronger, more vigorous growth from the remaining buds. After a single growing season, a peach tree you prune will be bigger, and have stronger branching than a similar unpruned tree.

Equally as important to the benefits above, your peach tree needs to be pruned to provide a strongly structured shape. The natural shape a peach tree takes on is not always the best for its maximum fruit production. Stark Bro’s peach trees are pruned in the nursery row for proper shaping to get you started, but corrective pruning must continue at home. Annual pruning is more critical for peaches (and nectarines) than for any other fruit tree type.

Always prune peach trees to an “Open Center” shape. An open-center structure keeps the tree’s canopy open to light, which is necessary for the development of good fruit and helps prevent brown rot, a notorious enemy of peach trees.

  • First dormant season (a year after you plant the tree): Remove the central leader and direct the tree growth toward three or four strong scaffolds. Choose branches that are evenly distributed around the trunk. Maintain about 6 inches of height between the scaffold branches, keeping the lowest branch at least 18 inches from the ground. Leave some small branches on the lower trunk to encourage trunk strength. Prune back scaffold branches to one-third of their length.
  • Second dormant season: Prune away fast-growing new shoots but leave twig growth, which will be the fruit-bearing wood (on most peach trees). Choose and encourage additional scaffolds, if needed.
  • Third dormant season: Prune off any broken limbs or crossing branches, but don’t do any more major pruning until the tree has produced a good-sized crop.
  • Mature-tree pruning: Once the basic shape of your peach tree has been established, make your pruning decisions in line with which branches are bearing fruit. Most trees produce fruit on the previous year’s long stems and on short branches (spurs), each of which will bear fruit for several years. Each year, cut out a portion of the older fruiting wood to keep rejuvenating the tree. Prune back each of last year’s stems to half its length.

Pruning angles

Narrow, V-shape crotch angles in the limbs are an open invitation to disastrous splitting later on, particularly when your peach tree is supporting a large fruit crop. For your tree’s branches, choose wide 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock angles.

Pruning to a bud

Make sharp, clean cuts close enough (about ¼-inch away from the next outward-pointing bud) so you won’t leave a clumsy stub that’s hard to heal over. Stay far enough above the bud so it won’t die back. Slant the cuts and the new growth will develop beautifully.

Every branch has buds pointed in various directions. Because you want vigorous new growth to spread out and away from the center of the tree, make your cut above a bud that’s aimed outward. These are usually located on the underside of the branch. This helps your peach tree take on a more spreading shape, keeping it open to light and air circulation.

Pruning Whips (Unbranched Trees)

Unbranched peach trees are ideal if you want more control over which branches are allowed to develop — as you might in certain artful pruning styles like espalier. Prune whips back to 28- to 36-inches above the ground at planting time. After the new branches have grown 3- to 5-inches in length, select a shoot to become the leader and the rest become the tree’s scaffold limbs.

Off-season Pruning

Sometimes pruning needs to be done even when the season isn’t ideal. If a branch is broken by the wind or by a heavy load of fruit, emergency treatment is necessary. When taking action due to injury, prune to clean up any ragged edges; making a flush cut that leaves no stub.

It does not benefit the peach tree to wait until dormancy to prune damaged, dead, or diseased limbs or to remove unwanted growth like suckers and watersprouts. These should all be completely removed as soon as you see them.


There are several good reasons to thin fruit:

  • To reduce limb breakage
  • Increase the size of the remaining fruit
  • Improve fruit color and quality
  • Stimulate floral initiation for next year’s crop

Home gardeners can effectively thin peach trees by hand. During May and June (in most areas, many peach trees will start to drop or abort underripe fruit. This is a natural process that allows the tree to mature the remaining crop load. If not corrected through thinning, peach trees may bear biennially (fruits only every other year) or bear heavily one year, then bear a comparatively light crop the next year. Thinning may seem counterproductive in theory, but it really is a benefit to your peach harvest in the long run.

The best time to thin peach trees is within 20 to 40 days of full bloom. Thin so that each remaining peach is spaced 6 to 8 inches apart on the branch. In clusters, leave the king bloom (the center bloom in the cluster of five flowers) as it will develop into the largest fruit. On spur-type peach varieties, many fruit spurs grow along a branch and will need to be thinned out to encourage bigger and better fruit on what remains. All of these tasks promote the improved bearing and fruit quality of your peach tree — you’ll be pleased with the results!

How To Prune Your Fruit Trees

Within a few years of lovingly planting fruit trees, most folks find themselves with scraggly overgrown bushes, rather than the Garden of Eden they had envisioned. The key to keeping fruit trees attractive and productive is annual pruning.

Worry not, pruning is not the brain surgery it has been made out to be. Curmudgeonly Master Gardener types may tell you that different fruits are pruned in different ways, which is true to an extent, but there is a simple three-step process that works for the vast majority of fruit trees.

Outside of the tropics, most of us are dealing with pome fruits (apples, pears and quince) or stone fruits (peaches, cherries, apricots, plums – anything with a pit). This three-step method works for both.

Though summer pruning is not harmful to the trees, winter makes things easier. Without the tree’s foliage, you can really see what you are doing.

STEP 1: Clean Up

Start by pruning away any wood that is dead, damaged or diseased – a.k.a. the three D’s.

Are sprouts coming from the base of the trunk? If so, remove them – technically they’re called ‘suckers’ and they originate from the rootstock rather than the fruiting variety grafted on top.

How about suspiciously straight sprouts growing from some of the main branches? These erect, perfectly vertical branches, or “watersprouts,” – should be removed as well.

With all these clean-up cuts, it’s important to prune the branches back flush to the larger limb they’re growing from – don’t leave little stubs.

STEP 2: Thin Out

The goal of thinning is to allow light and air into the canopy, which boosts fruit production and reduces problems with pests and disease.

First, remove any branches that grow downward, toward the center of the tree or that cross paths with another branch.

Once these are out of the way, stand back and take a look. The goal is to have evenly spaced branches splaying out in a pleasing, fractal-like pattern from the center.

Do you see places where multiple branches compete with each other? You might find two or more growing from a single crotch at a narrow angle, for example, or from different points but in a parallel fashion, one hovering over the other.

If so, thin out all but one branch, retaining the branch with the healthiest appearance and best crotch angle (roughly the 2 o’clock or 10 o’clock angle from the center of the tree). Wider angles can break when laden with fruit and narrower angles lead to bushy growth and fruit that is too high to pick.

Next, continue to thin the tree until there is a good 6 to 12 inches of air space around every branch. The smaller the branches are, the closer they can be to each other.

As with your clean-up cuts, all thinning cuts should be made flush to the branch.

STEP 3: Head Back

The last step is the easiest – you’re basically giving the tree a haircut.

The idea is to prune back the outermost growth of the tree so the branches become shorter and thicker as they grow, rather than long and gangly. This keeps them from snapping under the weight of the fruit, but pomologists (fruit scientists) will tell you that it also causes the tree’s hormones to activate growth lower in the canopy, making for smaller, more fruitful trees.

Heading back the tree means cutting off 20 to 30 percent of last year’s growth. You can distinguish last year’s growth from two-year-old growth by the wrinkly ring of bark encircling each stem. Depending on the vigor of the tree, this may be anywhere from two inches to 4 feet back from the tip of each branch.

Unlike the previous steps, these cuts will be made part way into each branch. Exactly where you make the cut is important, too. Prune each branch back to a point one-quarter inch above a bud that faces the direction you want that branch to grow in the coming year. If there is another branch close by on the left, for example, prune back to a bud on the right side of the branch.


  • Sharp shears make for clean, easy cuts – if you don’t know how to sharpen your own, many neighborhood hardware stores often offer the service for a small fee
  • As a measure of disease prevention, dip the blades of your pruning shears in solution of isopropyl alcohol for 30 seconds to disinfect them before moving on to prune another tree
  • Clean up the pruned wood from around the tree and dispose – especially if it contains any diseased material

Brian Barth formerly lived in America’s fruit basket, aka California, where he ran an edible landscape design company, but moonlighted each winter as a fruit tree pruner.

Wintertime is the ideal time to prune fruit trees.

Although fruit trees can be pruned in the spring and summer as well, wintertime is actually the perfect time.

In winter, trees are in a stage of dormancy. During this time, there is little to zero stress when trees are cut back.

And to boot, without their leaves, it it is far easier to see what needs to be pruned!

Wintertime is the perfect time to prune fruit trees.

Autumn pruning, on the other hand, should always be avoided.

Pruning stimulates new growth. And as trees prepare for winter and head into dormancy, the new growth is detrimental to a tree’s health in several ways.

With fall pruning, the new growth shoots do not have the necessary needed time to harden off before the freeze.

Pruning leads to healthier trees, and a more consistent harvest.

In addition, the cuts from pruning don’t have adequate time to heal either.

So as you can see – winter is the way to go when it comes to pruning!

Here is a look at the 4 simple steps to get those fruit trees pruned this winter!

4 Simple Steps To Prune Fruit Trees In The Winter

Pruning fruit trees is not as difficult and scary as many are led to believe.

It is, however, an important chore to keep fruit trees healthy and productive.

Trees that are left to grow unchecked are not just unsightly, they will also bear less fruit over the years.

Step 1 – Start With The Right Tools

It is vital to use sharp, clean tools when pruning.

Dull blades tear limbs and create stress and damage to a tree.

Cleaning the blades is equally important. The metal blades and teeth on pruners and saws can easily carry disease from tree to tree.

A pruning saw is good for cutting off larger branches.

Wipe down with rubbing alcohol, or a 5/1 solution of water and bleach before and after use. It is also important to clean the blades from tree to tree.

To tackle most pruning jobs, 3 basic tools will do.

A good pair of pruning loppers, a pair of small hand pruners, and a pruning saw.

To prune fruit trees correctly, sharp blades are a must!

The loppers will remove most branches that are up to a few inches in diameter. The hand pruners easily clear small shoots and starts.

And the pruning saw is used for removing any larger limbs.

Product Links : Pruning Loppers – Ratcheting Hand Pruners – Folding Pruning Saw

Step 2 – Eliminate The Dead And Damaged

This is the easiest step of all.

Begin by removing any wood that is dead, diseased or damaged.

The last thing you want is a tree spending energy attempting to heal damaged limbs.

When clearing damaged limbs, always cut limbs back flush.

When making cuts, always trim back flush to the trunk or branch the limb is attached to. Keeping all cuts flush keeps the tree from having tiny stubs.

Not only are they unsightly, they can produce new, unwanted growth.

Step 3 – Allowing The Light In By Thinning

Now it’s time to perform a little thinning. This is the one pruning task that causes more angst than any other.

Keeping it simple is the key to success. Think of it as opening a blind or window shade for the tree

Trees, like vegetable plants and flowers, need light and air to survive and thrive.

This step opens up the tree canopy to let air and light in.

How To Prune Fruit Trees : Allowing light to reach through the tree is a key to success when pruning.

Begin by removing branches that cross each others path. Remove the smallest or least healthy of the two crossing.

Repeat this process until the branches within the core of the tree are not touching. This will allow the necessary light needed into the tree.

Next, remove branches with horizontal or downward growth. These branches struggle to hold mature fruit.

Branches that grow upwards or at an angle upwards are the best. They naturally hold fruit more securely.

Step 4 – Trimming Back Last Year’s Growth

The last step is to trim back last year’s growth a bit. This helps strengthen the tree.

A good rule of thumb is to take off about a quarter (25%) of last year’s growth.

Remove about 25% of the new growth from the previous year.

This helps to shape the tree into a nice form, and keeps it manageable.

Your tree pruning is complete! All that is left is to pick up the trimmings from around trees.

Your lawn mower will thank you when it comes time to mow in the spring!

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You should be pruning apple trees in the late winter or early spring.


  1. When you cut a tree, it leaves an “open wound”. It takes some time for the tree to create a “scab” over the cut area. The raw wood is less susceptible to bug infestation in the early spring.
  2. It’s easier to see the shape of the tree when there aren’t blossoms and leaves on it.
  3. The direction of the tree needs to be set before it starts its growth spurt in the spring.

A Few Basic Guidelines:

Learn how to prune apple trees by following these simple guidelines. Remember that when pruning apple trees you’re directing its growth.

  • As you prune your apple tree continually walk around tree. Is the tree balanced? How does it look from this angle? Now change your point of view and ask the same question.

  • When pruning apple trees, you’ll want to train up one central leader. The central leader is the main truck / branch that goes up the middle of your apple tree. All the other branches come off this central leader.

    Some apple trees have two main limbs that branch off the main trunk and go up the center of the tree. They usually help balance each other. One leans a little bit to the left and the other one leans to the right. Each tree has its own personality.

  • This year’s growth will carry next year’s apples. When you’re pruning apple trees don’t cut off all the new growth. The apple blossoms will form on the new budding twigs.
  • Remove the suckers. These are the shoots that are growing up from the roots of the tree.
  • Cut out all the dead branches. If you have a struggling apple tree, you’ll want to prune it when the leaves start growing. This is because it’s easier to see which limbs are dead and which ones are alive.

    Prune dead limbs out of the tree anytime of year. You can easily spot dead branches during the spring and summer.

  • Prune out any of the branches that are growing vertically. These branches don’t produce fruit, don’t support the shape of the tree, and use nutrients that could be used for fruit production.
  • Cut out branches that are growing horizontally. The branches should angle upwards. When the fruit gets heavy, horizontal branches can’t hold the weight of the fruit and bend and crack. This can cause severe damage to the trunk of the tree.
  • Trim out branches that are growing toward the ground. They’re going the wrong direction.
  • When you have two branches that are crossing over each other, keep the one that best supports the shape of the tree.

  • Crop all the apple tree branches off and a certain height. I stand on the ground and cut the branches off as high as I can reach with the clippers.

    You don’t want the apple tree to get too tall. You should be able to easily pick apples from a medium sized ladder.

    If you let the tree grow tall not only is it hard to pick the fruit, but the energy from the tree goes to tree growth instead of fruit development and production.

  • The last thing to do is to look at the openness of the tree. Can the sunlight get down to the developing fruit? If the branches are too crowded, you’ll need to cut out some of them.

Remember each tree is its own unique piece of art. Pruning apple trees can be compared to good parenting. You need to keep working at it every year. Work with the tree and guide its growth. Feed it. Nourish it, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Have fun. Use common sense and good judgment. Trees are very forgiving. If you make a mistake, next year you can fix it when new branches grow back.

NOTE: If you’re having problems with mice, rodents, and small animals that want to eat the tender bark of your young fruit trees, you can protect the tree. Buy some ¼” Galvanized Hardware Cloth and wrap the bottom of your tree. We lost about 2/3 of our orchard one year to mice. This meshed wire solved the problem. When the tree gets its tough bark, you don’t need the hardware cloth anymore. Remove the wire mesh before the tree grows around it.

The deer love young tender fruit trees. If you have a lot a wild life coming into your yard, you might want to build a deer fence around your orchard.

Return To:

Growing Apple Trees from Pruning Apple Trees
Growing Fruit
Canning Applesauce
Dehydrating Apples
Homemade Apple Juice
Making Apple Cider
How to Store Apples

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This article covers pruning old and neglected fruit trees, if you would like to learn how to prune younger or freshly planted trees please read ‘An introduction to pruning apple trees‘.

I get asked a lot about how to prune older trees, particularly from gardeners who have moved to a new house and have inherited unruly and unproductive specimens. The other common issue is dealing with a older tree that has been pruned too hard either by a previous owner or by the gardener themselves. I hope this article will help avoid pruning problems while also giving some assistance in correcting mistakes that have already been made.

Old and unproductive trees in a commercial orchard would normally be removed (a well pruned new tree will produce far more fruit in the long run) but in the garden there are often other things to consider. You may want to keep an old tree for the beauty it ads to your garden or for sentimental reasons, in this case there is more to consider than just fruit yield.

Reasons for renovating old trees include:

1. To enhance their appearance in the landscape.

2. To restore an old tree with sentimental value.

3. To get better quality fruit.

It is worth bearing in mind that it will take at least 3 years to restore an old tree and in that time you can easily be harvesting quality fruit from a new, healthy semi dwarf tree. It is also not worthwhile trying to save a diseased tree so if the main framework is badly cankered you should remove it and plant a new tree.

Before we get going on tree restoration I am including a list of common pruning terms which should make the following information easier to understand. Don’t get overwhelmed on your first read through, it’s not as complicated as it sounds!

Common Pruning Terms

Dormant – An tree is in a dormant state in the Winter approx between November and February. At this time the leaves have fallen and the tree’s energy is conserved in the roots, trunk and main branches.

Tip bearing – Fruit is produced on on the tips of the branches. Tip bearing varieties are relatively uncommon. Any pruning of of shoot tips will reduce the yield of a tip bearing tree.

Spur bearing – Fruit is produced on small lateral branches called fruiting spurs. You are more likely to have a spur bearing tree than a tip bearer. You can see a fruiting spur in the photo growing from a small lateral branch.

Partial tip bearers – Many varieties of apple bear fruit on tips and spurs. Partial tip bearers are pruned in the same manner as spur bearers.

Fruiting or flower bud – Fruiting buds (sometimes called flower buds) are larger and more plump than growth buds and have a downy surface. Flower buds produce flowers which mature into fruit.

Wood or Growth bud – Growth buds are smaller than flower buds, they are more pointed and grow flush with the branch.

Outward facing bud – Any growth bud which faces away from the centre of the tree.

Terminal bud – The growth bud at the tip of a branch. Removing the terminal bud will stimulate the buds below to produce woody side shoots which will become new lateral branches.

Spur – Fruiting branches which produce apples, they look like small and stubby compressed stems with fruiting buds.

Leader –The leader is a clear central-leading branch that grows upwards ahead of the other branches.

Scaffold or Lateral branches – Scaffold branches are the main supporting branches of the tree.

Crossing branch – Crossing branches are branches that cross each other creating a dense canopy in the centre of the tree.

Downward branch – A downward branch hangs down from a lateral or scaffold branch, these will never produce fruit and should be removed.

Whorl – A whorl is where three or more small branches originate from the same location, it is common on unpruned mature trees.

Water Sprouts – Water sprouts are thin branches which normally grow straight up from lateral branches.

Suckers – Suckers are unwanted shoots which grow near the base of the trunk. Most apples are grown on grafted rootstocks to control the size of the tree (the immature tree has been joined to a root from a different variety) so the root suckers will not be the same apple as the above ground tree. Suckers also grow faster and stronger than the tree itself and can even out compete it if they are not removed.

Dead Wood – Dead wood is as the name suggests any dead or diseased wood. Dead wood will be obvious when the tree is in leaf due to lack of any leaves but can also be recognised in Winter as it is dark and brittle, often with bark falling away.

Canker – Canker is the most common apple tree disease and is identified by areas of dead, sunken and crusty bark. Canker is highly likely in old and neglected apple trees, the extent of the disease will decide whether the tree is worth saving.

When to prune and how much to prune.
Pruning should be completed when the tree is dormant. It is far better to prune a tree just before it comes our of dormancy with early March being ideal. Early winter pruning leaves open wounds exposed to the elements at a time when the tree is unable to repair itself. Pruning when the tree is not in its dormant phase will result in excessive new leafy growth as the expense of fruit production.

The reason restoring an older tree will take 3 years or more is that (a) we don’t want to over stress the tree by making too many wounds (remember every cut is an entry point for disease) and (b) we don’t want to stimulate vigourous, uncontrolled growth that will severely reduce yield and adversely effect the shape of the tree. I think it is helpful to remember it took more than one season for a tree to become overgrown so it will take more than one season to correct.

The most common mistake is ‘topping’ shown opposite where excessive pruning has produced a tangle of fast (and weak) growth. This will mean no fruit the following year and a lot of work to restore fruiting for subsequent years. The weak forked joint between fast, new growth and a large limb also leaves the tree more susceptible to storm damage in later years.

There are two types of cuts you use when pruning a tree; thinning cuts and heading cuts. A thinning cut but means removing complete branches right back to the point where the branch joins the trunk. When renovating an old tree nearly all your cuts will be thinning cuts. A thinning cut allows air and light into a tree and doesn’t trigger uncontrolled growth.

A heading cut is used to shape an immature tree. It involves cutting a branch anywhere other than its point of origin and will stimulate growth below the cut. A major heading cut (referred to as ‘topping’) causes a tree to fight back and quickly try to replace all foliage that has been removed. Heading cuts on main branches produce dense upright growth that congest the tree, block out light and severely hamper fruit production. It will take years to sort out. To understand the effect major heading cuts have on a tree it might help to look at ‘apical dominance’ as follows:

Apical dominance it the process that allows the tree to grow upright so it can present its leaves to the sun and make energy. Without apical dominance tree growth would be completely random. The leading bud (the last bud at the tip of a branch) produces the hormone auxin that controls the buds below and prevents them producing new branches. If the leading bud is removed (by a heading cut) auxin levels fall and the buds lower down spring into action and produce new lateral branches. Once the leader is gone everyone wants to be king! You can see the result of major heading cuts in the ‘NOT GOOD’ image below.

The trees environment
Before doing any renovation it is a good idea to concentrate on the trees general health. Plenty of light and good airflow will be essential for a good recovery so cut back any hedging or large shrubs that may be causing congestion. In many cases apple trees are planted too close together so you may need to decide on trees to keep and trees to remove altogether. A slow release feed like good garden compost spread around the base of the tree will also aid recovery. Avoid high nitrogen feeds however as they will stimulate too much new growth.

The tools of the trade
To prune an old tree you will need am good quality secateurs, loppers and a pruning saw or bow saw. You will need the pruning saw or bow saw more in year one and will be using the secateurs and loppers every year thereafter. To keep a fruit tree in top productive condition it will need a small amount of pruning every year.

My top tip for the day is to get yourself a pack of coloured chalk. I find chalk very helpful for marking the branches I am thinking of removing but also for highlighting the ones I definitely want to keep.

You need to take your time in contemplating the finished shape of your tree and only start cutting with a definite plan in mind. If you are new to this (we all were once) marking the branches will take a lot of the stress and uncertainty out of the job and ensure a cool and calculated result.

Ok, are we ready to start pruning? Here we go……

Year 1 – The first year of pruning is to remove any dead, damaged or diseased wood and to open out the centre of the tree. You should not remove more than 25% of the tree per year or it will try to repair the damage by producing too much new growth. All the cuts you will be making at this stage will be thinning cuts.

First remove any dead wood, it will be obvious from its appearance and lack of buds or new growth. Dead wood is not counted as part of the 25% limit.

Look for damaged wood where two branches have been crossing and rubbing or where branches have come into contact with a neighbouring tree and remove.

Any branches showing signs of canker will need to be taken down. Bear in mind that canker is a fungal disease that can be spread through contact. Even when removing dead wood care should be taken as canker was likely the cause of its demise and may still be present. It is good practice to dip pruning tools in a sterilising solution as you work to avoid spreading the disease.

With an old tree it is better to make a small number of large cuts than a large number of small ones. Neglected trees often have a crowded main branch framework so the objective of pruning is to improve branch spacing, allowing light and air to reach all parts of the tree. The resulting open ‘goblet’ shape is better for ripening fruit, easy picking and yearly pruning.

It is likely that you will have one or two large branches crowding the center of the tree. This branch (or branches) need to be removed right down to the union with the trunk.

Do not cut flush but just above the ‘collar’ which is the raised ring where the branch meets the trunk. The cut should be at an angle (often facilitated by the tree anyway) to allow water to run off. If the branch is too large to remove in one go it can be taken down in sections as long as the whole is finally removed. Do not leave partial limbs or stubs, thinning out entire limbs will result in considerably less regrowth. You will be surprised how much difference removing just one large central branch will make in opening up the tree.

Next remove any suckers from the base of the tree, at that stage you are likely to have reached your 25% rule and should leave the tree alone until the following season. This is the point where you will be tempted to do more, don’t. This is the point that separates the amateurs from the pro’s.

Year 2 – Pruning in the second year will be more concerned with shaping the tree and building on the ‘goblet’ shape you initiated in year 1. The goal in pruning a tree is to remove congestion. As we’ve said we are trying to get as much air and light into the tree while also cutting out crossing branches that will rub and be an entry point for disease. As with year 1, the 25% rule still applies.

Spend time at this point contemplating the tree and try to picture the ideal shape to suit your needs. Are the fruiting branches too high up and out of reach? Are there low hanging branches that block access to the tree for picking and pruning? There is an old saying that a tree is well pruned if you can throw your hat through it, keep this in mind as you look at your tree.

Safely removing large lateral branches
If you are removing a large lateral branch the method is to make 3 cuts to avoid the branch tearing at the trunk as it falls. Make the first cut below the branch about 6 inches from the trunk, this cut should be about a third of the distance into the branch.

The second cut is made about 3 inches below the first, you may need to cut all the way through but it is likely the branch will snap off when you reach the depth of the first cut.

You will be left with a stump with can now be safely removed from the tree. Cut tight to the branch collar but not completely flush with the trunk of the tree.

Downward facing branches – If you look at the main tree diagram above you will see a number of branches that are growing towards the ground. These restrict access to the tree and are shaded from the branches above so won’t fruit well. Remove any downward facing branches cutting back to their point of origin.

Upward growing branches and new sprouts – Remove any branches that grow straight up from any of your main lateral branches. You will also have a large number of new vertically growing whip like stems (water sprouts) as a result of the previous years pruning, snip these off at their base. You will also have water sprouts facing away from the centre of the tree which are valuable as new lateral branches. Leave these until your final pruning.

Crossing branches – Crossing branches congest the tree but also rub off each other creating wounds in the bark. Any cut or wound is a potential entry point for disease so these must also be removed. You can see in the picture opposite 2 rubbing branches that have died, probably from disease that entered at the contact point.

Shading branches – If you have one large branch network growing directly above the other it will be shading the lower one and preventing it from producing good fruit. Choose the healthiest looking branch that fits your vision for the tree and remove the other.

Competing branches – At this point you may have reached your 25% quota but if not you can start some lighter pruning to shape the canopy of your tree. Up till now you have probably been removing large branches but we are now concentrating on the smaller branches growing from your main lateral framework. If branches are growing into the same area and competing with each other they need to be thinned out by removing them at the point where they join the main branch.

Picture bright, open space as prime real estate. If you have a number of small branches competing for that space thin them out. If you have a group of small branches in the same area remove the middle one, chances are it will solve the issue and leave room for the ones either side to breathe.

Year 3 – Depending on how much pruning you were able to do in year 2 you may have some more competing branches to remove to open out the tree. It is a simple diagram below but this is the sort of shape you are looking for. Notice how all the branches are exposed to sunlight while all the branches that were being shaded from those above have been removed.

Once you have cut out any competing branches Year 3 is more about fine tuning than major surgery. At this point we need to start to look at how the tree behaves when pruned and how we use this to help it to produce the best fruit. . As you know there are two types of cuts we can make when shaping a tree, thinning cuts and heading cuts. So far you have been using thinning cuts and removing entire branches. Heading cuts are used to shape a tree when young and are not usually required with mature trees unless as part of a restoration. To use heading cuts accurately we need to look at the types of bud on the tree and how they respond to pruning.

Growth or wood buds (Left)
Growth buds are much smaller than flower buds and grow tight in to the branch or stem. They are slender and more pointed and look more scaly than downy.

Flower buds (Right)
Flower buds are larger and more plump than growth buds and have a downy surface. You will easily see the difference in growth and flower buds by November. Unless you have a tip bearing (unlikely) variety flower buds grow on spurs which are short, stubby branches where the fruit is produced. I a tip bearing variety you will see the flower buds at the branch ends.

When training a tree we are concerned with the growth buds. Heading cuts are made above growth buds and will produce a new branch facing the direction the bud is pointing. For example, if we prune above a growth bud facing in to the towards the centre of the tree we will get an inward growing branch (which we don’t want). By pruning above growth buds facing outwards we encourage the tree to form an open habit rather than a congested one.

As with year 2 you will have a large number of new water sprouts growing both vertically and at an angle from your lateral branches. Remove any vertical sprouts or those facing the centre of the tree. Any sprouts facing away from the trunk can now be trained to become new fruit producing branches or removed if they are growing towards a congested part of the tree.

Stand back and look for open gaps in the framework where there are no branches shading from above. Leave any outward facing sprouts that are growing towards empty areas and remove the rest. It is common for sprouts to grow in pairs, you can remove one and leave the other if it is growing in the direction you want. If you want to modify the direction of a sprout look for a growth bud facing the direction you want and prune above it at an angle of 45 degrees. You can see examples of a good pruning cut above.

As we are using heading cuts at this point (remember apical dominance) be aware that pruning new wood will result in new lateral branches being produced below the cut. Any laterals that don’t fit your plan can be removed later by pruning back to their point of origin.

That’s it!
I hope this article has been helpful. Obviously this a general guide and might not fit your tree exactly but all the same principles apply. Here’s a quick 123 reminder:

  1. Don’t top your tree.
  2. Don’t remove more than 25% of your tree in any given year.
  3. Make a small number of big cuts rather than a big number of small cuts.
  4. Open the center of the tree, make sure all branches have access to light.
  5. Remove the 3 D’s, dead, diseased or damaged wood.
  6. Finally shape you tree using minimal heading cuts.

I have to admit, when somebody says, “Imagine a tree,” I envision an apple tree, and when they say “Think about a fruit,” my mind jumps to apples right away. It only makes sense that I think growing apple trees is a gardening high art.

Part of that love and appeal comes from being raised on an old apple orchard. Back then I mostly climbed the trees, ate the fruit, and sadly, watched as the last survivors slowly succumbed to old age.

McIntosh apples, freshly harvested.

Nowadays I get to plant new trees often and tend to those that are producing fruit regularly. Regular research and learning gives me an even better grasp on what it takes to grow an apple tree, and that’s just what we’re going to take a look at today.

Growing apple trees may seem daunting, but it’s a rewarding investment. Let’s get started.

What These Trees Need

Right up front: lots of sun and lots of drainage!

Like most fruit-producing plants, apples want as much sun as they can get to grow their best. They’ll need at least six hours of sun each day, preferably in a location where they are spared the worst of the summertime late-afternoon sun.

Apple trees need full-sun conditions to thrive.

Apple trees will do their best when they are planted in well-drained soil that doesn’t get too wet. They should never be planted in low-lying or wet patches; that’s a job for willows and bald cypress!

An ideal location would be a northern or eastern slope, with the apple tree planted near the top in a sunny location. You’ve got your sunshine and your drainage, and that’s a pretty good start.

A Bit of Room to Grow

You’ll find two types of apple trees: the dwarf variety and the full-size variety.

Dwarf apple trees tend to grow to a height of about four to eight feet, while the full-size trees grow significantly larger, up to about twenty or thirty feet tall. There are advantages and disadvantages to either size.

Apple trees need full-sun conditions to thrive.

Dwarf trees are smaller and more contained. Many are ideal for espalier-style growing.

Their fruit production is typically small, but they take up far less room in the backyard than larger cultivars. You can also fit more trees in one area, providing a wider array of tastes and longer periods of fruit availability. They’re easier to harvest from too.

Unfortunately, dwarf trees tend to have weaker root systems. They’re more susceptible to being blown over during strong storms, and can even topple over under a heavy fruit crop. Be sure to grow these dwarf trees against a fence or with adequate support.

The full-size trees don’t have the same issues with their roots, but they are larger and thus demand more space. In exchange for a significant yield, you’ll need to use ladders and pole clips to prune these trees, and a fruit picker like this one available from Amazon to harvest most of the apples.

Ohuhu 13-foot Fruit Picker with Lightweight Aluminum Telescoping Pole

Comparatively, dwarf apple trees are ideal for a casual gardener or somebody who isn’t inclined to do extensive pruning. Full-size trees are for the more serious grower, or the one with the space and inclination to work on these larger plants.

How Far Apart Do They Need to Be?

Good question. Every tree has different spacing needs, but in general, dwarf trees should be planted four to eight feet apart. Full-size trees need distances of fifteen to eighteen feet in between to provide enough space to grow.

The more room to branch out and maintain airflow, the better.

In order to pollinate each other, plant no more than 50 feet apart.

It Takes Two to Make a Thing Grow Right

Ah, who doesn’t enjoy a nice ’80s hip-hop reference?

Most apple trees can’t produce fruit on their own and require cross-pollination from another tree. The trick to this is, not all trees will work.

So which ones can you select? There’s a handy interactive chart available at Fast Growing Trees that can be of aid, but I’ll save you the trouble and include a short list of what pollinates what here.

You’ll need at least two individual plants to pollinate each other, and they need to be in bloom at the same time.

Apples are divided into seven flowering groups based on when they bloom. Some examples of cultivars in the various flowering groups are listed below, but this is by no means a comprehensive list.

For a tree to pollinate another, they must be in bloom at the same time. This is an important factor for picking which plants you’ll place in your yard.

Additionally there are species known as “triploids.” These trees have three chromosomes and require two additional pollen sources to provide fruit. Planting a triploid plant requires at least three trees to be planted together to provide pollen for the triploid.

Or, consider one of the self-fruiting species. These trees can pollinate a triploid by themselves.

In general, other fruit-bearing trees that produce flowers at the same time as your apple trees are viable for cross-pollination. It’s always best to cross-pollinate within the same genus, but this could also include crabapples and pears, since they are all pome fruits.

Pretty Good, Not Great Soil

Sure, they need ample sun and good drainage, but at least apple trees don’t need rich soil! They tend to do their best in moderate-quality soil, nothing too poor or too rich.

When they are first planted, apple trees don’t need any fertilizing. In fact they don’t need anything by way of nutritional supplementation until they’ve been established for between two and four years. The actual number here depends on the cultivar you’ve chosen, and when your tree starts to produce fruit.

Apples aren’t picky about the soil they grow in.

After the tree starts producing fruit in the springtime, you’ll want to provide it with a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer. This is because apples start to gobble up nitrogen in large amounts after fruit production begins.

I’ve had the most experience using Jobe’s Organic Fruit and Citrus Fertilizer and feel comfortable recommending it. Follow the directions on the back for application rates, but remember, we aren’t fertilizing our trees the first year they’re in the ground.

Jobe’s Organics Fruit & Citrus Fertilizer with Biozome

When using fertilizer, I abide by the “just enough” rule. Avoid the temptation to overfeed your plants and fertilize sparingly on an as-needed basis.

It’s highly recommended that you do not fertilize your apple trees after the fourth of July, because any new growth after that date is prone to damage later in the season.

What’s the Drip Line?

The drip line is where the highest density of feeder roots can be found. These are the soft, white roots that seek out nutrients to feed your plant.

The best visual for imagining where the drip line is located is to look at the tree as if it is an umbrella. Everywhere the water drips down from the edges of the umbrella, or tree, is where you can imagine the drip line.

Fertilizing too close to the trunk is ineffectual. Always fertilize in the drip line!

It’s safe to apply a bit of compost sprinkled around the drip line of your apple tree each year in the spring, followed by that nitrogen boost after fruit production begins.

Choosing the Best Option

Your geographic location will dictate what apple trees you are looking to buy. Two types of apple trees exist: hardy, which grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 5, and long season, which grow in zones 5 to 8.

You’ll also need to check the “chill hours” for trees you’re considering, and map this against your average climate. Chill hours are the period time per year that an apple tree needs to be in temperatures ranging from 32 to 45°F.

Due to this requirement, you’ll probably have a tough time attempting to grow apples in the extreme south.

Choosing a variety of apple tree that is resistant to pests and diseases is vital to the long-term health of your garden, and it’s also important when it comes to producing fruit.

Jonagold, I Choose You!

Just as important as what will grow where, you’ll need to decide what type of apple you want to harvest. Most often this choice depends on whether you want fruit to eat, or fruit to cook with.

Wondering which is for you? will help you choose the best variety for your purposes!

What About Cider?

Remember the story of Johnny Appleseed? His real name was John Chapman, and he introduced apples across wast swaths of America by spreading their seed, thinking grafting hurt the host plant. As a result, what he planted sometimes grew into new sweet and delicious varieties, but they were often tart “cider apples,” fruit that’s difficult to eat and downright unpalatable out of hand.

Cider apples are great for cider and sometimes cooking, but not so good for eating.

Since apples don’t grow true to seed, only grafted saplings will produce the cultivar you’re looking for one hundred percent of the time. We’ve come full circle today, with specific cider-friendly cultivars available on the market. Several grafted varieties can be purchased to add to your home orchard.

Proper Planting Practices

Planting is the first step we can take to ensuring we’ve got healthy, happy trees. Almost all apple trees are at their best when planted in the spring. But spring can be a tricky season to get a handle on.

Spring is in the Goldilocks zone. The ground shouldn’t be frozen and cold weather should not be expected in the forecast, and yet it also can’t be too hot out. Not too hot, not too cold.

Truper 54-Inch Tru Pro Forged Eye Hoe with 7-Inch Head, Ash Handle

First things first, we remove a patch of grass around the intended planting area. Ideally, this will be a four-foot circle of removed turf and sod. My all-time favorite tool to accomplish this is a grub hoe, like this one that’s available from Amazon. It makes jobs like removing turf a breeze.

The hole you dig should have a diameter at least six inches larger than the pot size, and it should reach down to a depth of between eighteen inches and two feet. We don’t need to add any fertilizer or amendments to the soil unless it’s in really poor shape.

Grub hoes are perfect for removing sod and digging holes.

If you purchased a container-grown tree, you’ll want to remove the container and loosen the root ball. Don’t be afraid of slicing through some roots – you aren’t hurting the tree if you do this.

The roots of a container grown tree tend to grow in a circle around the bottom of the container. By slicing through the roots and loosening things up, we encourage roots to grow down in the direction they’re supposed to be going. It’s okay to really loosen up the root ball.

Although not an apple tree, this is a good look at a rootbound plant. Break these apart so that roots grow down and not in a circle.

If you purchased a bare root tree, then you don’t need to do this.

Plant the tree in the hole so that it’s about an inch or so above grade, fill the hole back in with soil, and pack it in firmly. The planting area around the tree should be slightly mounded, but don’t worry – this will settle eventually and become flat with the the ground.

It’s safe planting practices to never bury the trunk of any tree. That applies to mulching as well; don’t pile mulch up around the trunk.

Avoid pruning or fertilizing young trees. In the majority of cases, you can get away without pruning or fertilizing the tree until it begins producing fruit.

Time for a Bit of a Haircut

Whether it’s for fruit production or just a nice looking tree, apples require some regular pruning.

Springtime is the best time of year to prune an apple tree, preferably before it starts to set leaves. The basics of pruning apply when working on apples, but there are other specific points to take into account:

First, I like to make a distinction between structural pruning and maintenance pruning when I hit apple trees.

Structural Pruning

The trees need strong limbs to grow fruit on, so the first thing to eliminate when structurally pruning are weak limbs. The best limb for growing fruit is positioned at a 45° angle from the trunk, or the “ten and two” angles we’re familiar with when keeping our hands on the steering wheel.

Structural pruning requires larger cuts using loppers or saws.

Eliminate weak and dead limbs. The longer a branch produces fruit in terms of years, the more likely it is that this portion will eventually need to be removed. The same goes for any damaged, diseased, or dying wood: cut it off!

This takes a bit more confidence in your pruning skills.

Right off the bat, you’ll want to remove water shoots. These are the thin, whiplike growths that shoot straight upward. Cut these off aggressively, right to the branch.

Smaller branches are easily handled by pruners.

Next up are crossing branches. Have you ever noticed how some branches get turned around and start growing back towards the trunk instead of away from it? Sometimes you’ll have two branches crossing over each other. We want to remove competing branches, and open the tree up for good airflow and better fruit production.

By taking care of these competing branches, we encourage more fruit production on the existing limbs.

Ensuring a Good Harvest

After the fruits begin to develop, you’re going to want to thin them out on the branches. This seems counterintuitive to having a larger harvest, and you may find yourself wondering, “Why the heck am I removing soon-to-be apples?”

Well, imagine the expenditure that goes into producing fruit. A tree can only produce a finite amount of energy for its fruit production. If that energy is spread out over five hundred apples, you’ll get a lot of poorly developed, lackluster fruits.

However, if we remove the weakest fruits, the ones that are smaller and cracked and using up valuable resources, we’ll have a crop of, say, two hundred apples – but they’re all going to be large, healthy, good-tasting fruits.

It’s the same idea behind thinning out your seeds and deadheading spent flower blooms, just on a different playing field.

Once the fruit starts developing and you’re removing the weaker, smaller, or cracked fruits, aim to keep about four inches between each remaining apple. This helps to guarantee adequate airflow and a healthier crop of produce.

How to Pick Your Own

Now that the fruit is just about ready for picking, do you know what to look for to determine whether it’s time to harvest? We want to inspect the color of the fruit, the ease of removing the fruit from the branch, and the color of the seeds inside of the fruit.

Apples tend to ripen from the outside of the tree towards the center, and from top of the tree to bottom. The amount of sun the fruits receive determines how fast they’ll become ripe for picking. If you start noticing a few apples that fell to the ground, start checking your fruit!

Color of the Fruit

It’s best to wait for all of the green to fade from the skin of an apple before harvesting, unless you like the fruit to be a bit more tart.

Some trees have tart-tasting fruit when the apples aren’t entirely ripe. (Personally, I like that in a fruit, but I also belong in Rawhide. This is not everybody’s cup of tea.)

Ease of Picking

Reach up and grab hold of a fruit. If you can’t remove it with a gentle pull, then it’s not ready to be harvested. Try a few other fruits to make sure you didn’t find a stubborn stem.


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Product photos via Jobe’s Organics, Ohhuhu, Truper, Enviro Pro, Anpatio, and Olson Products Inc. Uncredited photos: . With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu.

About Matt Suwak

Matt Suwak was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. This upbringing keeps him permanently affixed to the outdoors where most of his personal time is invested in gardening, bird watching, and hiking. He presently resides in Philadelphia and works under the sun as a landscaper and gardener, and by moonlight as a writer. An incessant questioning of “Why?” affords him countless opportunities to ponder the (in)significance of the great and the small. He considers folksy adages priceless treasures and is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.

Cooperative Extension: Tree Fruits


Pruning corrects the natural tendencies of fruit trees that may counterproductive to growing fruit or undesirable. The natural tendency to grow too many shoots and large branches ultimately causes shading in the interior canopy and lower branches. This lack of sunlight inhibits flowering and weakens branches. Trees with an open, well-lit canopy grow larger fruit compared to trees that grow into a thicket. Because they are trees, they can grow to tall heights, which creates difficulty in harvesting. Branches that grow beyond a height or length that is desired can be shortened or removed by pruning. Trees can be pruned to have a certain shape that is designed to be more fruitful or to be visually pleasing within the landscape. Pruning is the standard way to remove dead and dying branches. To partly correct the tendency of apple trees to bear fruit in alternate years can be partly corrected with pruning. There are many reasons for pruning fruit trees.

The best time to prune fruit trees is late winter into early spring when it will least affect winter hardiness and tree health. Summer pruning in late July or August is another time when pruning can be performed, but severe pruning at this time will weaken the tree. Therefore, the majority of pruning should be done during winter or spring. Pruning lessens winter hardiness to a small degree, so pruning in early winter can lead to winter injury when it is followed by severely cold temperatures. It takes two weeks for the tree to regain winter hardiness that is lost due to pruning.

The same tree can be pruned in many different ways. How to prune fruit trees depends on expectations and individual reasons for growing fruit trees, preferences for tree size, shape and willingness to expend time in performing the task. One person may want fruit trees that have a natural, unpruned appearance, but may want to correct an overgrown canopy to increase sunlight for healthier branches. Another person may wish for a more manageable tree size or a tree that bears large, well-colored fruit. A tree pruned so that it keeps its natural appearance will be pruned differently than a tree that is cultivated primarily for fruit growing.

Shapes of Fruit Trees

Fruit trees can be pruned to have a natural shape or pruned to have a more cultivated look depending on the degree of pruning and types of pruning cuts made. Allowing the tree to grow naturally without any shaping is preferred by those who do not favor the more cultivated styles of pruning. This method may result is a very tall tree, but is the simplest to accomplish and is appropriate for fruit trees that also function as flowering ornamentals. A different option is a single leader trees with one trunk that dominates and grows upward several side limbs and numerous fruiting branches. The single leader shape is suitable for dwarf trees which are naturally short. When the tree is narrow at the top and wide at the base, as is the case with most single leader trees, more sunlight reaches the lower branches. A third option, the multiple leader system, involves two or more dominate branches that grow upward and angle out away from the tree center. This shape helps to maintain a shorter tree and is useful for trees that can grow very tall such as plums and peaches. The best option depends on the size of the tree when it is fully grown and on personal preference.

Espaliered trees are thin canopy trees pruned to grow along a wall or trellis. They can be trained as multiple leader or single leader. They are not considered natural since fruit trees do not grow in a flat plane in nature. To accomplish an espalier with minimal hassle, plant dwarf trees.

Natural or unpruned trees have dense canopies that lack sunlight.The single leader tree had several side limbs oriented horizontally to capture sunlight. Annual pruning removes some of the branches that shade the rest of the tree.The multiple leader tree has several limbs that grow upward and outward at an angle which helps to keep the tree short.

Types of Pruning Cuts

Removal of shoots or branches is accomplished with either the thinning cut or the heading cut. The thinning cut is the complete removal of the shoot or branch at its base where it joins the rest of the limb. This type of cut has minimal impact on the appearance of the tree. It is useful for removing dead branches or when the tree has an excessive number of limbs or branches. In contrast, the heading cut is removal of part of the shoot or branch so that part of it remains on the tree. Heading cuts are useful for shortening branches. The heading cut changes the direction in which the shoot or branch is growing and consequently alters the tree appearance. It also invigorates the buds and shoots that are closest to the cut. In general, thinning cuts reduce the number of branches on a tree and heading cuts increase the number.

A thinning cut removes the branch at its junction with the trunk or limb.A heading cut removes part of the branch and should be made at a point just above a side branch.

Both thinning and heading cuts can be made on large branches or small shoots. When pruning into large branch, the cut can be made in the older section where side branches are already developed. When pruning into a new shoot, an increase in the number of lateral branches will be the result. Avoid heading cuts into new shoots in order to encourage the formation of flower buds instead of new shoots.

When young branches are left unpruned, they tend to form flower buds rather than leafy shoots. Heading cuts invigorate buds near the point of the cut. Instead of forming flower buds, they grow into long shoots.

How To Prune Apple Trees Video

Tree Vigor

The demarcation between the current shoot and the previous year’s is visible as a complete ring or ridge as indicated by the arrow. On this cherry branch, the newer shoot to the left of the arrow has lateral flower buds and the two-year-old section on the right has spurs with flower buds.

Pruning practices can be adjusted to maintain the balance between shoot growth and fruiting and to prevent an overstimulation of the shoots. In order to accomplish this, an understanding of shoot vigor is needed. Vigor is simply the amount of shoot growth that occurs in one year. At the base of the shoot, a ring or small ridge occurs that completely encircles the shoot and indicates the beginning of this year’s shoot and the end of last year’s. The length from basal ridge to the shoot tip is the length of shoot growth that was made in the current year.

Shoots that grower two or more feet in one year are considered vigorous and unlikely to bear flower buds in the coming year. Shoots that grow less than four inches are called spurs. They cease growing earlier in the summer, and begin to form buds which usually bear flowers and fruit in the following year. For a good balance between shoots and fruit, a fruit tree should have a mix of spurs and shoots that are one or two feet in length. When a tree grows mostly strong shoots, it is vigorous and should be pruning lightly to prevent additional stimulation of strong shoots. Trees that have lack strong shoots and have a predominance of spurs are lacking vigor and will not likely be invigorated by severe pruning.

When a tree is vigorous, it forms fewer flower buds than trees that are lower in vigor. As a rule, vigorous trees should be pruned with this in mind to prevent the removal of too many flower buds. When a tree is weak, it may have too many flower buds, some of which can be removed with detailed pruning to help restore the balance between fruiting and shoot growth.

Flowering and Flower Buds

Pear and apple flower buds can be found at the tips of short shoots and spurs.

Fruit trees form flower buds in the season prior to their bloom, usually in summer. They continue to develop through the fall and winter. In spring, the flower bud blooms, bears fruit and grows another shoot or spur that repeats the same process.

Flower buds: plum (left) and peach (right)

In apple and pear trees, flower buds occur at the tips of short shoots and spurs. They are swollen at the base and have a more rounded shape and larger size than buds that have no flowers. As a shoot grows, it increases in length and eventually forms a bud at its tip. Shoots that form a terminal bud in late spring or early summer have more time during the rest of the season to form into a flower bud. Shoots that continue to grow into late summer or fall are less likely to have a flower bud form at the tip, so it remains a leaf bud instead. Along the length of the shoot, buds also develop, but these rarely become flower buds. The following season, the lateral leaf buds will grow into short shoots, called spurs, that typically end in a flower bud. This is how branches grow if left unpruned. Pruning with heading cuts disrupts this process by stimulating buds to grow into strong, leafy shoots rather than spurs with flower buds. For this reason, avoid heading cuts in new shoots.

In peach, plum, cherry, and apricot, shoots grow in a similar manner, but flower buds are formed along the length of short shoots and spurs rather than at the tip of the shoot. The shoots and spurs consequently have a mix of both leaf and flower buds along their length. The shoot tip always forms a leaf bud in the stone fruit trees.

Pruning Decisions

Pruning involves a number of decisions about which branches to remove. Eliminating the excess is the essence of pruning, and deciding what is excessive is the first step. To begin, examine the tree from all angles to observe the size and shape of the tree, to find crowded spots with too many branches, and to find dead branches. Once the problems have been identified, decisions about what to prune can be made. It may be helpful to work from the opposite perspective and ask yourself what should not be removed. In this case, you would prune the rest of the tree in a way that favors these branches that have been selected.

Dead branches are not essential to the tree and can be eliminated without further thought. They are typically removed with thinning cuts when the entire branch has died. If only the tip is dead, it can be removed with a heading cut by pruning at a point just above a side branch when it is not desired to remove the entire branch.

Examine the size and shape of the tree and decide if it is too tall, too wide or growing too closely to the ground. Identify which branches are too tall or too long and remove them with them with thinning cuts or shorten them with heading cuts. In some cases, this may entail a large portion of the tree. Decide how much should be removed this year and leave the rest for the following year to avoid over pruning. If the tree has not been pruned recently, there will likely be a decision regarding which of several limbs should be removed. Look closely at each and select limbs that have fewer flower buds or are generally unproductive. Where two limbs or branches are occupying the same space, one should be removed.

Examine how densely the tree grows. Does each limb have sufficient space for its side branches and is there sufficient light reaching the inside and lower branches. If not, then look for limbs or branches that are too close to others and blocking sunlight. Some or all of these can be eliminated with thinning cuts. Deciding how many to remove in one season depends on tree vigor or how long most of the branches have grown. For very vigorous trees, remove one or two large branches at a time and leave others until next year. This will lessen the rebounding effect that pruning has on tree vigor. For trees that are less vigorous, more branches and limbs can be removed without the subsequent invigoration of the tree. If you are not bothered by the consequences of severe pruning, remove as much as you like in one year.

Examine the branches closely to see if they have grown flower buds in abundance or sparsely. This may require several years of experience and comparison from year to year since the classification of “too many” or “not enough” is an individual decision based on preference for how many flowers and fruit should be borne by the tree. With experience, pruning decisions of which branches to eliminate will be guided by how many flowers buds they bear.

One of the guidelines for selecting branches is the angle at which they grow. Branches that point down are weak and usually unfruitful. Watersprouts, branches that point directly upward are usually too vigorous and overshadow other branches. In either case, remove these types of branches and keep ones that point at an angle instead of straight up or down. If the tree has only watersprouts, keep the weaker ones since they eventually bear fruit.

Pruning Tools

A number of pruning tools can be used to make pruning easier. However, some trees are too large to be safely pruned with common tools. For very tall trees, it is best to hire a professional to prune the tree back to a manageable size before attempting to prune it yourself. For trees that have grown into power lines, contact the power company to correct the problem before attempting to prune in this dangerous situation. During pruning, protect your eyes from injury by branches. Safety glasses are strongly recommended to branches from poking your eyes.

For removing limbs and large branches, hand saws, and pole saws are the preferred tools. Avoid climbing trees or standing on old branches since they have poor structural strength and will likely break. Instead, use a pole saw or a tripod ladder to reach the tallest branches.

Loppers with a bypass blade are useful for removing small limbs and branches. They can reach into tight spaces more easily than some saws.

For detailed pruning and removing small branches, bypass hand pruners are recommended over anvil pruners since they can make a flat cut. Anvil pruners leave behind a small stump that will grow new watersprouts.

It is not necessary to seal pruning cuts since the wood naturally seals itself to prevent desiccation and fungal invasion.

Renovating a Neglected Fruit Tree

When fruit trees have not been pruned in many years, they can become overgrown with too many branches and have the tendency to bear only small fruit. Lower branches may die from lack of sunlight. However, the amount of pruning needed to correct this may be substantial and should be done over a period of three to four years to avoid the consequences of over pruning.

Begin by removing all dead limbs and branches. If most of the lower limbs are dead, the resulting shape of the tree will be altered after pruning.

If pruning will involve the removal of large limbs, this should be done first before detailed pruning. Where two limbs are growing too close to each other, remove one with a thinning cut. This may require the use of a saw and may entail the removal of a large branch. In many cases, the tree is too tall for safe fruit picking. Removing the tallest branches will shorten the tree and allow more sunlight to reach the lower branches. Remove large limbs in sections or with the help of another person. Avoid over pruning by removing only one or two large limbs each year. In the following year, some of these pruned limbs may regrow new shoots from the edge of the cut. One or more can be kept to replace branches that have died.

Finish the pruning by removing smaller branches and spurs as needed so that the remaining ones are not crowded. For balance and sunlight, remove more branches in the top of the tree. As a general guideline, remove 75% of the branches in the top and 50% in the lower part of the tree.

In the next year, continue to remove large branches that crowd others. At some point, there will be no more limbs that crowd others. In this case, prune to maintain the shape of the tree and to thin out branches to keep the tree from becoming crowded.

Maintenance Pruning

Watersprouts, strong and upwardly oriented shoots, arising from a pruning cut made in the previous year.

The main purpose of maintenance pruning is to prevent branches from crowding each other, and to keep the tree a certain size. It is best to begin with the largest pruning cuts that need to be made, such as the removal of any limbs that grow to close to other limbs. Follow this with detailed pruning such as shortening branches and removing branches where there are too many. The same steps that occur with pruning neglected trees can be followed, but remove fewer limbs and branches.

Pruning Newly Planted Trees

Fruit trees can be pruned at planting to develop the shape of the tree. After this initial pruning, they should be pruned as little as possible until they begin to bear fruit every year, generally from five to seven years after planting. Pruning encourages the growth of leafy shoots rather than flower-bearing shoots, so trees remain in an unfruitful state for a longer period of time.

Shaping a tree can be accomplished at planting. A single leader tree does not need pruning (left). To shape a multiple leader tree, remove the main branch at a point just above four or five side branches (right).

To establish a single leader tree, leave the main branch unpruned. Remove any side branches that are too low to the ground and any that are broken or dead. To establish a multiple leader or vase-shaped tree, pruned off the top of the tree at a point above four or five side branches or at a point about 30 to 36 inches above the soil. The point where this cut is made will determine the height of the lowest branches on the tree, and can be adjusted to a higher or lower point. For a vase-shaped tree, the new shoots should be encouraged to grow outward to form the main branches. Pears and sweet cherries tend to grow vertically, so it may not be easily done in these two species.

To maintain the vase-shaped tree, branches should not be growing completely upright nor should they be horizontal, but somewhere in between these angles.

A young peach tree pruned to be a multiple leader tree.

Trees can be trained to many different shapes. The best time to do this is in the formative years, starting in the first year after planting. Once the framework of the tree is established, it is difficult to reshape it. Pruning nonbearing trees should be kept to a minimum until the tree reaches maturity or full production, generally at an age of six to ten years. Severely pruning a young tree will keep it in an unfruitful state for a few additional years.

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