Skip to Content

How To Prune A Crabapple Tree

Crabapple trees are stunning plants to keep in your yard. They’re spectacular all year, with lush foliage and fruit in the summer, vibrant leaves in the fall, and colorful flower blossoms in the spring.

Growing a crabapple tree isn’t difficult but requires knowing how to care for it. And if you are growing one of these plants or plan to, you may wonder about the pruning process.

If you want to learn how to prune a crabapple tree, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know!

How to prune a crabapple tree

When to Prune a Crabapple Tree

First and foremost, it’s important to determine when to prune a crabapple tree.

Crabapple trees don’t need to be pruned often. However, you may wish to prune them if there are dead or diseased branches, if branches start to crowd each other or to help maintain their shape.

If you decide you need to prune your crabapple tree, it’s best to do so in late winter or early spring when your tree is dormant. This ensures that when the warm weather returns and your tree is ready to grow again, it can focus its energy and nutrients where you want the growth.

Pruning a crabapple tree in the winter is most important when the tree is young and still growing into its full-size shape. Once it’s more established after a few years, you can prune your tree in the summer if you wish.

When pruning a crabapple tree in the winter, you should also wait until after the threat of severe cold has passed in order to keep your tree healthy and strong.

What You Need to Prune Crabapple Trees

crabapple tree varieties

The most important tool for pruning a crabapple tree is a pruning saw. You’ll need it to cut through tough branches. (If you need help finding the right tool, visit our post about the Best Pruning Saws).

You’ll also want a pair of garden shears to cut smaller pieces, like water sprouts and suckers.

Even though those two tools are all you need, you may find that a few other tools are also useful. For one, a pole saw can help you reach branches that are normally too high to reach. Additionally, a large rake is helpful for cleaning up all the parts of the tree you pruned.

How to Prune a Crabapple Tree in Four Steps

Now that we’ve covered the basics of when you should prune a crabapple tree and what you need to do so, you’re ready to learn how to prune a crabapple tree.

Read on for step-by-step instructions.

1. Remove Suckers and Water Sprouts

Suckers and water sprouts are small offshoots that grow and take nutrients and energy from your main plant.

Suckers are small, twig-like pieces that grow at the base of the plant. To remove these, use your garden shears to cut where they meet the ground.

Then, look for water sprouts. These grow vertically from the tree’s main branches, and they can cause crowding and other issues. Like removing suckers, use your garden shears to cut them at their base.

In both cases, the earlier you can catch and remove these, the better.

2. Identify Dead and Diseased Branches

The next step to pruning a crabapple tree is to remove dead and diseased branches. This step is crucial to stopping the spread of disease throughout your plant. It also helps the tree focus its energy and nutrients on growing where it’s healthy.

To identify dead and diseased branches, look for those that are brittle, soft, or paler in color than other branches. One bacterial disease that’s common for crabapple trees is fire blight, so make sure to watch for this.

The most common signs of fire blight are the leaves and branches turning dark, almost black in color, and burnt-looking.

2. Remove the Dead and Diseased Branches

Now that you’ve identified many of the branches you need to prune, it’s time to remove them.

When pruning larger branches, paying attention to where you’re cutting them is important. Don’t cut right where the branch meets the trunk, or you risk leaving an open “wound” that leaves the tree prone to pests and diseases.

Instead, cut the branch seven to eight inches from where it meets the trunk. Start by making a notch on the underside of the branch (but not cutting all the way through), about five inches from the trunk. This step helps prevent too much bark from peeling off the tree once you cut through the branch.

After you make the first notch, cut again two to three inches farther down the branch, so, as mentioned above, you’ll be seven or eight inches from the trunk. This time cut all the way through the branch until the limb completely separates from the tree.

3. Remove Branches That Are Too Close Together

Branches that grow too close together can compete for space and sunlight. If they become crowded, airflow may be restricted, making your tree susceptible to disease.

The first set of crowded branches you should consider removing are branches that are crossing. If you notice them crossing, cut one of the branches following the instructions in the previous step. You can do the same if you notice branches that are going to start crossing if they continue to grow.

Similarly, you may find that some branches are growing back inward. You can remove these to prevent them from causing overcrowding and to give your tree a more orderly shape.

4. Remove Low-Hanging Branches, if Needed

In most cases, following the steps above to remove suckers, water sprouts, diseased branches, dead branches, and crowded branches is all that’s needed.

However, in some instances, branches may grow so low that they interfere with walking or other activities. You may wish to prune these for convenience.

However, be mindful of over-pruning. Aesthetic pruning is generally not recommended, as it can harm your plant’s health.

Other Tips for Pruning Crabapple Trees

Clean Your Garden Tools

If you’re cutting branches infected with disease, make sure you carefully clean and disinfect your garden tools. Using tools that have been exposed to bacteria and diseases on healthy parts of the plant can cause unintended consequences, like spreading the disease.

Be Mindful of Over-Pruning

Pruning a crabapple tree too much can cause issues. It may stunt your tree’s growth, leave it open to more pests and diseases, or lead to even more water sprout growth, which is exactly what you want to avoid.

A good rule of thumb is to never prune more than 20 percent of your tree in a year. Oftentimes, less is more.

Consider Pruning Over Multiple Seasons

If you do find that you want to prune a lot of your tree, consider spreading the pruning out over multiple seasons or years. For example, water sprouts and suckers can be removed anytime and as much as needed without causing too many issues. Then, focus on your diseased and dead limbs to limit the spread of diseases.

If this already causes you to prune a lot of your tree, consider waiting to prune additional branches for more aesthetic purposes until later, when your tree has had time to heal.

Frequently Asked Questions

Beautiful blloms of a Thunderchild ornamental crab apple tree in the spring with dappled light bokeh

Do you need to prune a crabapple tree?

Crabapple trees are relatively low maintenance, and you may not need to prune them at all. If this is the case, don’t overthink it! Over-pruning and pruning, when unnecessary, can cause complications of their own.

However, you should prune your crabapple tree when parts become diseased, or the branches become too crowded. Occasionally, you may wish to prune your tree to guide its shape.

How much should you prune a crabapple tree?

In general, you should keep pruning to a minimum. If your tree is not diseased, does not have dead or dying branches, and is not overcrowded, you probably don’t need to prune your tree at all.

If you need to prune a crabapple tree, don’t prune more than 20 percent of the tree at a time. If you find that you need to remove more than this, consider spreading it out over multiple seasons or even wait a year. Always start by pruning the pieces that are most necessary to remove, like diseased limbs. Then, you can address the rest.

How do you prune a dwarf crabapple tree?

Pruning a dwarf crabapple tree is much like pruning a regular crabapple tree. In general, you’ll follow the same steps. Remove suckers, water sprouts, dead and diseased branches, and crisscrossing or overcrowded branches.

However, because dwarf crabapple trees are smaller, to begin with, you should be even more careful not to remove too much at once. You can still follow the 20 percent rule; err on the side of caution. And don’t prune them if they’re less than three years old.

Wrapping Up How to Prune Crabapple Trees

Keeping a crabapple tree strong and healthy isn’t particularly hard, but there are some things to be aware of. Now that you’ve learned how to prune a crabapple tree, you can rest easy knowing that your tree is well taken care of!

Looking for more tips and tricks for growing crabapple trees? Visit our crabapple tree page for more how-to guides, recommendations, and crabapple tree varieties!