How to Prune an Apple Tree

Whether you want your apple tree to look a certain way, to produce more apples, or to stimulate its growth, apple trees will benefit from regular pruning.

With proper pruning techniques your tree will develop good limb structure capable of carrying a heavy fruit load, stimulate the creation of fresh new limbs, rid the apple tree of damaged or diseased limbs, improve fruit quality, and control the height of the apple tree so that your apples are easier to pick.

When To Prune Your Apple Tree

Late winter, early spring is the best time to prune your apple tree before it has had a chance to set new leaves. It is early enough that no new shoots are forming, but late enough that there is no danger of ice damage to the freshly cut limbs.

Summer pruning is also possible and gives you a better ideas as to what limbs are damaged or diseased, and to get rid of them right away, rather than waiting until the following spring. Just don’t prune as heavy in the summer as you do in the spring – stick to maintenance pruning in the summer. Apple trees need as much leaf surface as possible for creating energy from sunlight – photosynthesis.

Why Prune A Young Apple Tree

In the first few years, pruning your young apple tree will help develop a strong and healthy root and limb system for future years’ harvests.

When a young apple tree is uprooted to be shipped to your home or nearby nursery, many of the fine, hair-like feeder roots that are responsible for absorbing water and nutrients are lost in the transplant process. Pruning a young apple tree will balance out the top growth with the root system, and allows the root system to re-establish itself for future years.

Pruning a young apple tree also concentrates that energy into stronger and more vigorous limbs. After a year, a pruned apple tree will be larger and stronger than a similar unpruned apple tree. The flower buds should also be pulled off for the first few years to allow the tree to concentrate its reproductive energy into developing healthy roots, and strong limbs.

When pruning a young apple tree don’t over prune. Limit pruning to no more than 25 percent of branches in order to keep as much leaf area as possible for a faster, healthier growing tree. Pruning too much of an apple tree can cause stress, produce smaller than normal fruit, and can also encourage the growth of water shoots.

How to Cut a Branch

There are a few techniques that should always be followed and a few things to keep in mind whether you are trimming down, or eliminating an entire branch.

Partial Branch Pruning

Every branch will have buds coming out at all different directions. When trimming a branch down in length, always cut above an outward facing bud – in the direction you want a new limb to grow. This will promote the limb to grow outwards away from the central leader, rather than inwards towards the central leader, and will allow more light and air to reach the middle of the canopy. Always use a high quality pair of pruners to get a clean cut.

Cut a 30 degree slant, about 1/4 inch above an outward facing bud, so that the bud is on the high side of the slant. Cutting too close to the bud can kill the bud, and cutting too far away from the bud will make it harder for the tree to heal.

Whole Branch Pruning

Pruning an entire limb is useful when you need to thin the structure or to remove dead or diseased limbs.

When pruning entire branches, cut the limb flush to the vertical trunk or to the scaffold branch it grew from. The apple tree will naturally heal over the cut within a few months. Leaving too much of a stump can cause water shoots to sprout – read more on water shoots below.

Tools Required To Prune

Proper pruning requires the use of proper tools. The most used pruning tool is the pruning shear. Bypass pruning shears act like a pair of scissors with two curved blades and give a nice clean cut on limbs and branches up to 3/4″ in diameter. Keep the blades sharp for the cleanest cut, your apple tree will heal faster.

For branches up to 2 inches in diameter, loppers are the preferred tool. Similar to pruning shears, loppers have larger blades, sometimes curved, and longer handles that allow you to apply more leverage to cut through tougher branches and limbs.

For larger limbs, a pruning saw – similar to a woodworking handsaw – will cut through large limbs with ease with its serrated cutting blade.

For branches that are up high and out of reach, a pole pruner can easily take care of those hard to reach limbs. With extendable poles reaching up to 20 ft high, limbs can be pruned with a steady hand and the pull of a cord.

To start, a good pair of pruning shears should be enough to properly prune a young apple tree. As the tree grows and the diameter of the limbs increase, you can purchase loppers, a pruning saw and a pole pruner as the need arises.

When pruning branches and limbs, use the tool that is most appropriate for the job based on the diameter of the wood and the location on the tree. Before you start pruning, dip your pruning shears or loppers in isopropyl alcohol to disinfect them. This will prevent the spread of diseases from one limb – or one tree – to another.

What Limbs Need To Be Prune?

Apple trees should be pruned to a central leader and scaffold – or lateral – limb structure. There are three main categories of pruning – maintenance pruning, thinning pruning, and heading pruning.

Maintenance pruning is used to clean up the tree and remove any dead, damaged, or diseased branches, and eliminate any suckers or water shoots. Thinning sets the framework of the apple tree, opens up the centre of the canopy, and identifies the scaffold branches you will be keeping. Heading is meant to trim branches down in length to promote thicker, stronger scaffold branches, and to shape the tree. Keep reading to find out more about each type of pruning below.

What is a Central Leader?

The central leader is the main trunk of the apple tree that grows up vertically and it is surrounded by evenly spaced scaffolding limbs that come off the main trunk at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions.

The central leader should be easily identifiable. If you see two central leaders forming, choose the stronger and healthier leader as the main leader, and prune off the other. The central leader should not be allowed to grow more than 24 inches above the highest scaffold branch. If it does, prune it down to 24 inches to promote the growth of new scaffold branches towards the top. The topmost bud on the leader will then produce a vigorous new leader.

As the tree grows, ensure that there are no other branches that grow taller than the chosen central leader, and prune them back to an outward facing bud to respect the shape of tree you are going for.

What Are Scaffold Limbs?

Scaffold limbs grow outward in all directions from the central leader at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions (roughly 45 degrees). These will be your scaffold limbs, or sometimes called ‘lateral branches’.

The scaffold limbs will become the framework for your apple tree and will determine its future shape. The first few years of the trees life it is important to train those scaffold limbs to grow strong and branch out as they will be integral in future years fruit production.

1. Maintenance Pruning

Before you start pruning for the ideal apple tree structure, take some time to prune off any water shoots, damaged, diseased and dying wood. This will give you a clean slate for your thinning and heading cuts later on. Maintenance cuts can be done at any time of the year. As soon as you identify water shoots, damaged, diseased, or dying/dead wood, remove them.

Prune Water Shoots

Water shoots – sometimes referred to as ‘water sprouts’ – are whip like branches that grow straight up vertically off of your scaffold branches, sometimes in clusters, and feed off the water and nutrients provided by the scaffold limb. They will suck energy from the tree and will never produce any fruit in return, while being a vulnerable access point for pathogen attacks. Most water sprouts appear on older wood and develop from a buried bud under the bark layer. Prune water sprouts as soon as you see them. Waiting until the spring to prune water shoots will do more harm than good.

Prune the water shoots flush with the scaffold branch using pruning shears or loppers. The same applies to damaged, diseased or dying wood.

Prune Dead, Damaged and Diseased Limbs

Any limb that is damaged, diseased or dead/dying should be pruned as soon as it is noticed. In cases of extreme weather or a heavy crop load that results in limb injury, prune the damaged limb as soon as possible – don’t wait until the following spring. Prune to the central leader or to the scaffold limb it grew from – the point of origin for that particular branch. Cut the branch using pruning shears, loppers or a pruning saw as close as possible to the connecting joint.

2. Thinning Pruning

Once you’ve cleaned up the tree with your maintenance pruning, take some time to identify well structured scaffold limbs, any limb growing too upright, limbs that are crowded or grow inwards, and any whorls for your thinning cuts.

Prune Scaffold Limbs

Examine the limbs that come off the central leader. Select 4-8 main limbs that grow outward from the central leader at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock angle (roughly 45 degrees) all around the central leader about 4-6 inches apart vertically – On a young apple tree, prune everything else coming off the central leader as close to the central leader as possible – these will be the main scaffold limbs that the rest of the structure will rest on going forward.

Prune Upright Limbs

Any limb that comes off the central leader at too sharp of an angle at the 11 o’clock or 1 o’clock angle should be pruned off. These limbs will be weaker than the rest. The sharp angle between the central leader and the upright limb will trap bark in the crotch and can cause the limb to split or break off in the future, especially if they are trying to support a heavy crop of apples.

Limbs that grow out horizontally or downwards can also cause problems down the road. The heavy apples they produce will weight down the limb even further, possibly breaking or cracking or causing it to touch the ground and inviting pests and diseases. Low hanging limbs are also easier for squirrels to jump onto, so prune any lateral branch that grows within 18-24″ from the ground. If you have squirrels that are stealing your ripe apples, read our guide on 9 ways to keep squirrels out of your apple tree.

Prune Crowding Limbs

Prune any branches that face inwards towards the centre of the canopy. This will increase airflow and allow more sunlight into the middle of the canopy, which will reduce the chance of fungal diseases from forming within the canopy. Prune the weaker of two branches that cross one another, water will collect where two branches rub together and can cause diseases from entering. Prune any downward facing branches, they will not be able to handle the weight of a heavy crop.

Prune Whorls

Whorls are branch intersections that have 3 or more branches growing out of the same origin. Think of a fork in the road, but with 3 or more splits from the same origin along a scaffold limb. Because so many limbs are growing in the same spot, it creates a stress point on the branch and a major weak spot. Prune off the smallest and weakest branches at the intersection, leaving only the largest and strongest branch to continue.

3. Heading Pruning

Heading pruning – or shaping – is the last step, and involves pruning – or heading – part way into certain branches to promote shorter, thicker branch growth.

Prune Long Branches

Step back and look at the overall shape of the apple tree from all sides. The shape should be conical or triangular in nature, with the bottom of the canopy reaching out the farthest, and the top scaffold branches being shorter than the bottom ones. Prune any branches that extend past the conical shape. Cut to an outward facing bud that respects the structure you are going for.

Pruning long unbranched scaffold branches will encourage the branch to grow thicker and stiffen up, and branch out into side branches – or spurs – which is where the actual apples will grow from.

Get Ready To Prune

With a little practice, you will be able to easily identify central leaders and scaffold limbs and seeing pruning opportunities in no time – just don’t go overboard and over-prune. Young apple trees will be much easier to prune, there will not be much maintenance pruning yet, so your focus should be on establishing a good structure of scaffold limbs and shaping the tree. Grab your pruning shears and get pruning.

Related Questions

Are dwarf and semi-dwarf apple trees pruned the same way? Yes, for the most part. Dwarf or semi-dwarf apple trees should be pruned using the same techniques and to the same structure, but less aggressively than regular sized apple trees because of their reduced vigour.

Should I prune apples and apple blossoms from my apple tree? Pruning small apples will encourage the apple tree to use more energy on producing larger and better quality apples, improve the colour and quality of the apples, and will help reduce damage to limbs from a heavy crop. Pulling off apple blossoms in the first few years will help new apple trees establish a strong and healthy root system. Read our guide on what to do with the apple blossoms once you’ve pulled them off the tree.