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Taking the mystery out of pruning apple trees in the garden

How do I prune my apple and other fruit trees?

The pruning of apple trees and other fruit trees doesn’t need to be a mystery. In fact, it’s not set in stone. There are favourable times to prune, depending on your needs. Just remember that fruit trees producing stone fruit such as plums, peach, apricots and cherries are best pruned outside of the winter season – in other words, avoid the dormant period. Why? Because this tends to reduce the risk of silver leaf disease and other infections. Plum trees don’t really require a great deal of pruning anyway, once they have been encouraged to grow into a good shape. Just take out any old wood or badly crossing branches in early spring right through to mid-summer and that’s really all they should require.

Apple trees need to be pruned but how do you do it? When do I prune my apple tree?

Apple trees, on the other hand, need you a bit more. But a lot of what you do to them is for your own benefit. You, presumably, want them to produce as much fruit as possible and you might want to make sure that most of the fruit isn’t too high. Here’s a handy guide to pruning apples, depending on your goals:

Encourage fruiting of apple trees

Got a young apple tree that you would like to encourage into fruiting as quickly as possible? Prune it in late winter. Why? Because once the growing season arrives (any minute now, normally from late March onwards), it will spur it into action with zest and vigour! Prune out the weak and crossing branches so that the tree can concentrate on the very best branches that are left. Trees have lots of energy at the beginning of spring because they use their stock of sugar, produced the previous season (via photosynthesis). Their growth gradually slows down as the year progresses. It’s also a great time to look at the skeletal shape of the tree and decide what needs to be removed.

Tree silhouette in winter Winter time helps you to see the shape of deciduous trees. You can easily see the damage sustained by this tree.

If you wait until autumn to prune your apple tree, it will already be moving its food store down into the roots for winter storage. It might not have quite enough energy to fully recover from the shock of cutting back. Tender young shoots that begin to sprout from the wounds will probably freeze and break off during the winter. The same applies to pruning in early winter. You want the tree to be able to heal and recover from the shock.

How to prune older fruit trees

Firstly, let’s look at the reasons why we might want to prune. Apple and pear trees tend to become less productive as time passes. Their branches often become tangled and congested and the air flow is generally restricted through the tree, leading to possible disease.  The aim of a successful prune is to achieve an open ‘goblet’ shape with a sturdy framework of perhaps about five branches.

Apple branch bearing red and green apples in summer against a blue sky Good pruning encourages the best chance of an abundance of apples

You should be able to remove up to 20 per cent of the canopy during an annual prune. Bear in mind that you want to remove some of the old wood because the best fruiting wood is between one and four years old. If you end up pruning rather too much, it’s likely to encourage the tree to produce fast-growing ‘water shoots’ which are vertical stems produced in profusion. This tends to crowd the crown of the tree, so it’s helpful to remove most of these from their point of origin.

Thinning out apple trees

In order to minimise this, the general idea is to thin out your tree here and there but not just at the top. If you only prune the top branches, all the new growth will come from here. Spread your pruning cuts around and throughout the entire canopy, aiming to let the light and air into the centre. Be selective, shortening branches here and there and taking out overcrowded stems completely.

Bramley apple tree green apple fruits in abundance The Bramley is one of the UK's most famous and well-known apple trees.











Is your tree too large? Pruning in the late spring and summer might be better. Why? You can reduce its size by up to 25 per cent without causing it to produce vigorous growth afterwards.


What about a diseased apple or fruit tree?

If you’ve noticed disease in your tree, you can prune it at any time – the sooner the better. If it’s not too bad, wait until later in the winter so that the wound will heal as soon as the growing season arrives. It’s important to remove the infected branches and dispose of them well away from other trees – preferably by burning. Also remember to disinfect your pruning saws.

boy eating apples picked from an apple tree Enjoying home-grown apples straight from the tree, it's a family affair.

Enjoy your fruit, there’s nothing better than the delights plucked from your own trees!

UK-grown fruit trees available from Perfectplants.co.uk

Red apple placed on a table out in a garden. Beautiful apple, fresh from the tree!