Everyone loves a beautiful apple tree that’s loaded with colorful, tasty fruit. However, an apple tree left to its own will rarely produce the kind of quality fruit we’re looking for.
Rather, we need to give the tree some attention during the winter months by making the right pruning cuts to allow maximum light penetration and airflow. By pruning apple trees in late winter, we can maximize the health and fruit production of the tree in the fall – and enjoy the apple juice, apple pie, or apple muffins we’ve been thinking about all year!
The primary goals of pruning appe trees are 1) to provide maximum light penetration to ensure flower buds are established our apples get all the energy they need to grow and 2) to provide sufficient airflow that will help prevent disease.
For the backyard orchard, we’re going to use the central-leader pruning method. This method of pruning apple trees will provide a traditional, round, almost Christmas-tree shape for our tree. While there are other fascinating pruning methods and growing systems used on commercial apple orchards to maximize production per acre (like high-density plating systems), they certainly don’t have the same aesthetic appeal as a well-maintained central leader tree.
Preparing the Tools
We’re going to need a few basic tools to prune an apple tree:
- Hand Pruner – 95% of your apple tree pruning will be with a hand pruner. In my early years growing apple trees, I bought many inexpensive pruners that rust out, get stuck, and are difficult to fix. About 5 years agoI made the investment in a Felco F8 Hand Pruner and it hasn’t let me down. The F8 has a fantastic grip, and it can handle branches up to about ¾ inches thick. You can also buy replacement parts for Felco pruners, which makes them the obvious long-term choice for a hand pruner!
- Lopper – For larger branches or a limb on more mature trees, you’ll need a lopper. Because this tool used much less often than the hand pruner, I don’t recommend a professional-grade tool in this case. For the home orchard a basic $20-30 lopper will suffice.
- Pruning Saw – While there are specific saws made for pruning, the saw cut is so rare in the home orchard, I’d suggest that just about any handsaw from the woodshop will suffice for cutting off a limb if need be.
Don’t Spread Disease – Clean the Tools!
Cleaning your tools won’t take long but it can prevent all sorts of trouble. Clean your pruner with hot water and soap. By doing so, you’ll reduce the risk of spreading disease in your orchard. Who knows what that pruner was used for last time! After cleaning the pruner, apply a light oil to the blades for smooth cutting in the orchard.
When pruning an apple tree, you’ll want to ensure you make pruning cuts in the right position.
When removing a branch, always cut just after the end of the branch collar. The branch collar is the ring of woody plant tissue where the branch of an apple tree meets the trunk. Ensure your cut is on the branch you want to remove, and not into the parent branch.
Heading cuts are made to reduce the height or length of a branch. When you’re making these cuts, the next bud down the branch will experience significant growth, and will lead the charge in the coming growing season. We can take advantage of this by cutting just in front of a bud that is facing in the direction we want the branch to grow. Typically, we’ll cut just in front of a bud that is outward or down-facing, as this will promote outward growth of the tree.
When to Prune Apple Trees
We want to do all of our major pruning work when the tree is dormant, which means winter pruning apple trees is the way to go Keep in mind we don’t want to unnecessarily stress the tree by pruning it early in the winter when it could still be exposed to extreme cold in certain geographies.
Prune after the coldest part of winter has passed. In northern climates that usually means late February or Early March. We don’t want to wait so long that buds are starting to swell! Pruning apple trees after buds have started to develop for the spring will stress the tree so it cannot grow properly.
Minor summer pruning can be done just to remove water sprouts (the little branches that decide to grow STRAIGHT UP) or suckers around the base of the tree. Make sure any pruning done is relatively minimal. If you remove too much foliage or wood, the tree will not have enough energy to put into ripening fruit. Excessively summer pruning apple trees will also make them more susceptible to cold damage later on.
Pruning Apple Trees in the First 5 Years
Proper pruning of an apple tree in the first few years of growth is ABSOLUTELY essential to the long-term health and productivity of the tree. These years are critical to shaping the tree and providing the backbone for the years to come.
Brand New Tree
New trees usually come in one of two forms – bare root or potted.
- Bare Root Tree – These trees are dormant, so nurseries can ship them as long as temperatures aren’t too warm or cold. The nursery will dig up the tree, rough prune the roots and branches, and sell it to the grower.
- Potted Trees – These trees are often purchased in the spring or summer, and are covered in leafy branches – and sometimes even fruit.
Either tree will work just fine long-term, but I recommend buying bare root trees from a reputable source. When you buy a bare root tree, you are able to know exactly what root stock you have (which determines size of the tree and when you’ll start to get fruit). You can get your tree in the ground in the spring while the weather is still cool. By planting the tree in the spring, the roots will have time to penetrate the soil and the tree will be much less susceptible to heat damage.
If you do buy a potted apple tree, just let it grow that first summer you put it in the ground. The roots will need to get established, and too much pruning could shock the tree. You’ll re-shape the tree in the winter.
Cutting the Tree
This is the hard part of pruning apple trees – cutting the apple tree! Nobody wants to chop branches off their brand-new tree, but trust me, you’ll be rewarded over the long term. With a new tree we’re going to focus on a few areas:
- Clearing the Trunk – Remove all lateral branches with 30-36” of the ground. You might want to go a little higher depending on your yard, other trees, and the aesthetics you’re seeking. 30-36” is a typical height.
- Remove High Crotch Angles – Remove any branches from the trunk that are coming off at a high crotch angle of greater than 45 degrees. Over time, the bark from these branches will grow into the bark of the trunk, creating a weak “crease”. While the tree might look just fine, eventually that branch will be loaded with apples, and then CRACK! The branch breaks and you’ve lost all of those years of growth. Remove ALL branches with high crotch angles. It will save heartache later.
- Branch Selection – If you could hover above the tree and look straight down, you’d want to see 4-5 branches coming out from the tree spaced evenly in all directions.
- Set up your Scaffolds – A “scaffold” is a “set of branches.” We want to leave some empty space on the trunk – about 24” – between our sets of branches. As your tree grows, you clear off branches from the trunk between your first and second set of branches. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up with a tree that’s just too dense for its own good – remember, sunlight and airflow are essential to a healthy apple tree!
- Other Cuts – Other than the cuts above, you’ll also want to remove any branches that grow straight up, suckers growing out around the base of the tree, and any wood that’s growing downward.
The Teenage Apple Tree
Ok, I’m not really talking about a tree that is 13-19 years old, but I think the equivalent for an apple tree is about 3-5 years old. It’s starting to take shape, you can see what it’s going to look like as an adult, but it’s still a little gangly and awkward. It probably hasn’t produced fruit yet – but it’s close!
This “teenager” tree has no branches around the bottom 30-36”, it has established main branches on at least 2-3 whorls. The tree is probably 7-10’ tall. There are no branches with high crotch angles. You’ve laid a perfect foundation for a tree that could produce apples for a lifetime!!! In the coming years, you will see this tree simply GROW. It will all lateral branches and cover them with flower buds!
Fruit Thinning for Apple Trees
We usually think about pruning as just cutting off wood. However, fruit thinning is important to tree health and quality fruit production. It seems strange that there is such a thing as “too many apples!” Pruning apple trees is important, but believe it or not, too much fruit can stunt a tree’s growth or even break branches.
Right around when you are summer pruning apple trees, take a look at how much young fruit is on your apple tree. Around June, most apple trees will drop some fruit to naturally self-thin. After this, thin clusters of three to six apples down to one apple. We’d rather have one large, ripe apple than six small fruits.
Fruit thinning will even out fruit production year to year. Most fruit trees, including peaches and plums, tend to have a heavy crop one year and a light crop the next. This isn’t convenient for home gardeners. Pruning apple trees and properly thinning fruit will take care of irregular fruit production.
Pruning Mature Apple Trees
Now that we have the basic shape of our tree established, we’re going into maintenance mode for the rest of this tree’s life. Again, nothing new here – we’re pruning apple trees for light penetration and airflow.
At this stage of an apple tree’s life you’ll also see some other things start to happen. You might have diseased branches that need to be removed. If there was a particularly heavy load of apples in a season, you may have a branch that has cracked or broken. And if your tree is starting to get old – maybe 20+ years old – you’ll see branches start to die off especially if they’re not getting great sunlight penetration.
Work through the following list – in order – to ensure you’re making the right decisions and the right cuts as you maintain a mature apple tree.
- Dead Wood – Remove any dead wood from the tree. Dead wood may be obvious if the bark is falling off or the branch has turned black. But if you’re unsure, one of the tricks you can use it to scrape your fingernail along the bark of young wood. Healthy wood should have a green cambium layer. If it’s all brown, it’s not healthy and should probably go!
- Diseased Branches – Remove any branches that have signs of disease such as fire blight. Remove anything that just looks messed up, funky, and out of place.
- Damaged Wood – Remove any branches that are cracked or damaged. Position the cut to completely remove the damaged wood, but still take advantage of the growth further down the branch.
- Inward-Growing Branches – Branches should be moving out away from the tree. Sometimes a branch will decide to crowd the center of the tree. Remove any of these branches.
- Overlapping Branches – If two branches are growing right over the top of each other such that they’re almost touching, cut the larger one back.
- Straight Up – Remove any wood that growing straight up. The little shoots that grow from old pruning cuts or along the main part of a large branch are called “water spouts.” These unproductive branches don’t have flower buds – they just block light and they need to go!
- Straight Down – Any wood that growing below horizontal should be removed from the tree.
- Shape & Balance – Stand back from the tree. Think about it’s general shape and how you’d like it to be. Is there one particular branch that is dominating one side of the tree? Do a heading cut and cut it back to a place where it could branch out into two branches instead. If you see a branch crowding another branch and trouble coming in the future, cut it back to a bud that will redirect the growth into a better direction.
While this looks like a long list, you’ll soon find yourself approaching a tree and taking a few laps around it assessing it and planning its future. You’ll see what needs to go, and you’ll see the growth you want to encourage.
Tradeoffs & Limits for Pruning Apple Trees
There will always be tradeoffs in your cuts; you can encourage growth but you can’t make it happen. Think about the cuts you have to make. Think about what will be left after you cut – you may need to keep some branches that are less than ideal because there would be nothing left if you didn’t!
Don’t ever remove more than 1/3 of an apple tree’s growth. Ensuring above-the-ground balance with the root structure (and associated energy storage) is a critical key to having a healthy apple tree. Pruning apple trees on an annual basis will make sure you’re typically not removing more than 5-10% of a tree’s growth in any given year.
Pruning apple trees is absolutely essential for a productive backyard orchard. By following these guidelines, you’ll set yourself up for a long, healthy, and productive harvest of apples. Like me, you might find yourself looking for friends and neighbors to give apples away! Get the bushel baskets ready!
Enjoyed this article on pruning apple trees? Read about how to prune other fruit trees.