When to prune apples?

Apple trees benefit from proper pruning, spring and summer

CORVALLIS, Ore. – You can prune an apple tree any time of the year without hurting it, but late winter, just before spring, is probably best. The worst of the cold weather is past, so you won’t be subjecting the fresh cuts to severe icing, but you’ll still be able to influence the tree’s spring growth.

There are several main objectives to pruning an apple tree, says Pat Patterson, Oregon State University Extension Service Master Gardener:

  • Controlling the height of the tree, so that most of the fruit doesn’t grow out of reach;
  • Developing good limb structure for strength, fruit production, and the general health of the tree;
  • Encouraging a plentiful supply of new limbs, which will begin to bear fruit their second year; and
  • Ridding the tree of damaged or diseased growth.

The overall size of the tree depends primarily on its rootstock and innate vigor. Most apple trees are grafted onto dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock. (Take care when you plant a new apple tree not to bury the graft, where the fruiting stock joins the rootstock. This will ensure that the fruiting stock will not begin to produce its own roots and the tree will keep its dwarf or semi-dwarf height.) Even so, you’ll want to monitor the height of your tree to be sure it doesn’t outgrow the spot you’ve picked for it. Once it’s as high as you want it to be, prune the central “leader,” the main upright limb, back to a lateral branch. Then keep monitoring the height year by year.

“Don’t expect a new young tree to start bearing well until probably its fourth or fifth year,” said Patterson. “In the long run, the tree will do better to put its energy into root and limb growth rather than fruit for those first few years. So concentrate your pruning to produce a strong tree during that period.”

Inspect your tree for limbs that branch from the central leader either too sharply upward, forming an acute angle, or at too wide an angle. Acute angles tend to trap bark as they grow and can lead to splitting later on. Branches that grow at too great an angle from the vertical tend to be weaker. They also encourage “water sprouts,” the unproductive upright shoots that need to be pruned off mid-summer every year. The ideal angle between the central leader and lateral branches is about 60 degrees.

In general, encourage branches to grow toward the outside of the tree and eliminate those that grow toward the center or cross other branches. You want air and light to penetrate the foliage to the center of the tree as much as possible.

“Different kinds of apple trees have different ways of setting fruit buds,” said Patterson. “Most modern apples are spur-bearing. Many older varieties are tip-bearing. This is obviously very important for how we prune the tree so as not to cut off the fruiting wood. If you’re in doubt, as long as you know the name of your tree you can ask at your local nursery or look it up in a good garden book or on the Internet.”

Once your tree has matured and begins to produce fruit, expect new branches to bear their best for several years (perhaps three to five years) and then taper off. You’ll want to prune off older branches that have begun to produce less in order to encourage new ones. This practice will help you have a more-or-less steady crop over a period of years.

Summer is a good time to remove older branches, according to Patterson, because it is then obvious which branches are producing best and which should be pruned. Summer pruning also allows you to get rid of branches that are showing signs of damage or disease as soon as you spot them.

Beyond these basics (which also apply to other similar fruit trees, for instance pears) there are many fine points to pruning a fruit tree. For instance, how far from the central leader should you cut a lateral branch? At what angle? Should you shorten branches or always take them back to the central trunk? Are water sprouts ever good to keep?

The OSU Extension Service has several publications on planting, growing and caring for home fruit trees:

  • Pruning to Restore an Old, Neglected Apple Tree
  • Managing Diseases and Insects in Home Orchards
  • Growing Tree Fruits and Nuts in the Home Orchard
  • Training and Pruning Your Home Orchard

Pruning Apple Trees

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

Why?

  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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The Uncomplicated Guide to Pruning Fruit Trees

There’s something unsettling about the time to cut, or not to cut, your fruit tree. And by cut I mean prune, but in everyone’s mind this is substantial, and possibly brutal, tree surgery. Is surgery really necessary?! Perhaps we’re best to leave it, I’m mean things really aren’t that dire. Yep, pruning your fruit tree sometimes feels like life or death.

The theories on when to prune fruit trees vary like the winds in early spring. There are just so many times, and ways, to trim a tree that all seem definitive. Add to that so many different tree varieties, that if you googled “when to prune a fruit tree” (like you may be doing now), you’ll be thrown a full spectrum of methods for nearly all varieties. Early spring, late winter, peak summer, mid autumn….gentle trim, hard cut back, second year growth….Edward Scissorhands, Vidal Sassoon…

Perhaps the point this makes – louder than any – is that the best time to prune a fruit tree is whenever a tree needs it. Which may seem like ambiguous advice, thrown amongst ambiguity, but what I mean is that there are really few bad times to cut. Think of it as you would your own haircut. There just comes the point when you need to go to the hairdresser. Despite knowing it’ll be a couple of weeks – maybe a month – until you are comfortable into your new hair style, you can’t let your Saturday night date or mid-week meeting, deter you from necessary hair maintenance. Just cut your damn hair.

There are really only two occasions when pruning is not advisable. The first is when a tree is becoming loaded with fruit. Even Donald Trump would agree that this is a “really bad deal”. A cut back then will deprive you of the reason you’re growing the tree, so it an obvious no-no. The second, and just as obvious time not to prune, is when the tree is the perfect size, shape and loaded with fresh, lush growth. There’s no point playing with perfection just because you feel like giving the secateurs a work out.

The most basic concept of pruning is that by cutting it back it will promote new growth, and that’s a good thing because it encourages more fruit production. Fruit trees that are left to their own devices, without pruning, tend to become hard stemmed. This restricts new growth, which ultimately restricts fruit growth. To go forward, you have to go back first, and this is what a cut back achieves. It unlocks fresh and vigorous growth, turning stale trees vibrant again.

When pruning you need to ensure your tools are sharp and sterile. I know we’re trying to avoid the surgery analogy, but imagine a surgeon operating with blunt and dirty tools? Blunt secateurs will cause splitting of branches that can promote a host of potential problems. Clean cuts, using clean tools, will help a tree recover as quickly as possible.

In determining shape you need to consider the ability for the tree to hold good fruit as well as suiting the space you’re growing it in. So rather than sculpting rabbits or fairies, the shape of you trees needs to be better geared for production purposes. Make sure that there are 4 to 5 strongly defined arms to the tree, that will allow good airflow between the foliage and fruit, once it comes.

Times haves passed when we could allow our trees to grow to their own devices. We are now growing in smaller and smaller spaces and so our trees need to be shaped to suit us too. It isn’t all about your fruit tree, this is a give and take relationship on so many levels. Whether you are after a tall slim tree or a short wide one, it is where you cut along the branch that will determine whether the plant grows out or skyward.

Firstly, always prune at a bud junction. A bud is from where new growth will shoot, so by cutting as close as possible to buds it means no wasted energy on non-productive parts. To encourage the plant to grow tall cut immediately after a bud that is heading skyward. Similarly, to encourage the plant to grow branch out, cut immediately after a bud that is pointing sideways.

As mentioned, it should be strongly defined and with good airflow. This allows it to hold a good amount of fruit (not a burden of fruit) that will ripen without the troubles of pests and disease. Typically we don’t need enough oranges to get the footy team through a seasons of half times. Whatever oranges we do get should be sweet and juicy, rather than sour and dry, so this means growing quality fruit rather than as much as you can fit on the tree. When growing apples and some stone fruit, you will need to thin out clusters of fruit to ensure that which you leave on the tree will develop properly. It can often be the difference between sweet or sour apples. Give and take.

Timing… so when to prune your fruit trees? Of course, there are a couple of differing opinions on this, but one things we can all agree on is that it’s not immediately after watching Edward Scissorhands. Rather, prune after the tree has fruited or when in dire need of it. That typically means once a year for deciduous and some evergreen, but citrus that fruit twice a year can do with two if you’re feeling in the mood. The best time, if there is one, is at the beginning of winter when most fruit trees are dormant. If you really need to get in there and take away considerable foliage, it’s best to do it while the plant is asleep.

Remember that most deciduous fruit trees develop fruit on new growth therefore seasonal pruning is essential for fruit production. If you have a tree that is still establishing to full size, trim back last year’s growth, anywhere from 25-50% – this means new fruit and continued growth. For trees that are full size, cut back most of last season’s growth.

For citrus which suffer from the gall wasp, rather than pruning out every new piece you come across, make a concerted effort every few years to eradicate the diseased branches. Citrus can live with gall wasp but over time it does affect fruit production. A plant cut back every few years will outperform one that is cut back every few months.

Give your trees a feed after you have pruned them to help invigorate the new growth and maintain good health. Don’t expect to see a fast comeback if pruning now in winter – when deciduous trees are dormant and most others slowed down by cooler temperatures. Once the warm rays of spring hit, and warmer temperatures accelerate the flow of water through the tree’s veins, new growth is then imminent.

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.

It doesn’t take long for an apple tree to go feral. Left to its own devices, an apple has no desire to be a neat thing with well-placed branches. Unpruned apples produce smaller fruit, are often more susceptible to disease and start fruiting biennially (a natural way of dealing with pest and disease: less fruit, less infection). Winter pruning allows you to claw back a tree into a more ordered manner.

Photograph: Zoonar GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

The first thing, though, is working out what kind of a fruiting apple you have. Knowing the name makes this whole task very easy: just Google your apple plus RHS, and under the pruning section, the website will tell you that your tree is either a spur-bearer, a tip-bearer or a partial-tip bearer, which relates to where on the tree a fruit bud appears. These are round and plump, and on apples are often covered with down – the best time to see a fruit bud is now. From this fat little bud appear the flowers and, when pollinated, the fruit. A growth or wood bud is quite the opposite: slender, pointed and borne in a leaf axil. These buds are much smaller and give rise only to leaves, never flowers. Clearly you need both for a healthy tree, but if you cut off all fruit buds, well, the end of this sentence is obvious: no fruit.

Spur-bearer trees produce short, branched shoots – or spurs – with pointy fruit buds, mostly on two-year-old wood. These trees tend to have a tidy, compact habit and make up the largest group of apples, including varieties such as Cox’s Orange Pippin, Sunset, Egremont Russet and James Grieve. A neglected tree can, however, become very congested with spurs, producing a lot of very small fruit.

Cox’s orange pippin. Photograph: Nigel Cattlin/Alamy

Tip-bearers are the opposite and produce very few spurs. The fruit buds are found at the tip of long shoots produced the previous year. This creates a somewhat untidy tree and the branches look sparse without the spurs. There are fewer apples of this type; the best known is Cornish Gilliflower.

The last group, the partial tip-bearers, sit in between: they have both fruit on the tips of young laterals and spurs. Bramley’s Seedling, Discovery and Worcester Pearmain are all good examples.

Now, if you don’t know the name of your cultivar and it’s not obvious from the fruiting buds on it which category it falls into, divide your tree into thirds and prune one as a spur, one as a tip and one as a partial. In due course (it may take more than one year), observe which section produces the most fruit buds and continue to prune the whole tree accordingly.

Next week, I will go into how that pruning actually works.

Pruning Neglected Apple Trees

Old, neglected apple trees that haven’t been pruned for several years are often tall, densely branched, unproductive, and may contain a large number of dead branches. Fruit produced on neglected trees are generally small, poorly colored with a low sugar content, and misshapened. (The misshapened fruit are caused by insect and disease pests.) Though trees may be old, structurally sound trees can produce good quality fruit if properly renovated and managed. Pruning increases fruit size, promotes better color development, increases sugar content, and decreases insect and disease problems by allowing better spray coverage and faster drying following rainfall. Pruning also makes it easier to harvest the fruit.

Extensive pruning is the first step in the renovation of neglected apple trees. The primary objectives of pruning are to reduce tree height and to thin out undesirable branches for better light penetration. Complete renovation of neglected apple trees may take 2 or 3 years. Old, neglected apple trees can be rejuvenated by following the pruning procedures outlined below. Pruning is best done in late winter/early spring (late February to early April).

  1. Prune out all dead, diseased, and broken branches.
  2. Lower the height of the tree by heading back large, upright growing scaffold branches to outward growing laterals. Up to 4 to 5 feet of growth can be removed in one year. If it’s necessary to remove more top growth, spread out the pruning over 2 or 3 years.
  3. Remove undesirable interior branches. Prune out the weakest of crossing limbs and closely growing parallel branches. Also, remove limbs growing toward the center, strongly growing upright branches, and water sprouts. (Water sprouts are rapidly growing, vegetative shoots which develop on the larger branches or trunk of the tree. They often form just below a pruning cut.)
  4. Prune off low-hanging branches.
  5. If additional thinning is necessary, remove weak spindly growth. The amount of pruning will be determined by the density of branches. Prune sufficiently to permit some light to penetrate the center of the tree when in leaf.
  6. Once rejuvenated, only moderate pruning should be required in following years. Prune apple and other fruit trees on an annual basis.

Though apple trees may be old, good quality fruit can be obtained by proper pruning and timely spraying.

Additional information on pruning fruit trees can be found in Pm-780, Pruning and Training Fruit Trees.

This article originally appeared in the February 9, 2001 issue, p. 9.

Colorado State University

Most fruit trees benefit from yearly pruning in late winter or early spring. Pruning when the trees are dormant or before they leaf out in the spring helps to prevent the spread of disease. It is also easier to see the branches to know what to prune. Fruit trees produce flower buds in the summer that bloom the following spring. Most flowers are produced on short, modified twigs called spurs. Spurs also produce leaves. Leaves that grow on spurs are more closely spaced than those on non-fruiting twigs. It is important to not cut the spurs when pruning since they produce the flowers that in turn produce the fruit.

To prune, first remove any dead or broken branches. Then remove diseased growth and any branches that interfere with or rub against other parts of the tree. Lastly, prune to allow sunlight to reach the interior of the tree and then prune to attain the desired shape.

Broken branches should be removed immediately. When removing dead branches, sterilize tools between cuttings in case the branches were killed by disease. Alcohol or a bleach solution can be used as a disinfectant. When removing diseased branches, make the pruning cut about six inches below the diseased area. Again, be sure to disinfect the pruners between each cut.

Rubbing branches can damage a tree’s bark and wood, which allows diseases to enter and weaken the tree’s branches. Simply removing one of the two branches usually eliminates the problem. Thinning the growth on branches in the center of the tree allows more light and air to circulate the interior of the tree. This is beneficial for fruit production and general tree health.

No more than one third of the total growth on the tree should be removed in one season. Heavy pruning stimulates vegetative growth and reduces or eliminates fruit production. When heavily pruned, many fruit trees produce water sprouts that grow vertically from branches. These water shoots produce little if any fruit and can be removed at any time of the year as long as pruners are sterilized before each cut.

For more information, see the following Colorado State University Extension fact sheet(s).

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Neglecting to prune your fruit trees won’t stop production of fruit. However, we recommend you prune annually to improve the quality of fruit and to establish a strong framework of branches to support heavy fruit loads.

Pruning fruit trees can result in larger fruit that is easier to harvest.The tree will be much tidier and takes up less space in the garden.

We’ve put together this quick guide for when you should be pruning your trees. But, if all of this seems a bit confusing or too difficult, give us a call, we’ll arrange to come and do your pruning for you at the right times that it should be done.

Winter Pruning vs Summer Pruning

Winter pruning of fruit trees usually results in vigorous growth. The harder the fruit tree is pruned in winter the more vigorous the growth will be in spring. Winter pruning is used to train a tree to a particular shape or to encourage substantial growth. Winter pruning is recommended for newly planted trees up until the tree has achieved the desired height and shape.

In general, summer fruit tree pruning retards growth.The already established framework is maintained. The new growth that follows is tamed and is much less vigorous than growth following winter pruning. This allows more energy to be put into fruit. Once a system of summer pruning is established, very little winter pruning of the framework is required

When to prune fruit trees

The only fruit trees which require a defined pruning period are apricots which should be pruned only when the trees are actively growing (eg spring or summer)

Winter pruning time for other fruit trees is from autumn, when the tree is beginning to lose its leaves, through to spring,as the flowers are beginning to open.

Summer fruit tree pruning can be carried out before or after harvest.

Remember: Winter pruning promotes vigorous growth; summer pruning inhibits growth.

Late winter

  • Winter prune deciduous fruit trees such as apple, pear (always lightly), peach, nectarine, cherry and plums.
  • Autumn-fruiting raspberries (primocanes) should be cut back in late winter to within a few centimetres of the ground. Newly planted raspberries and hybrid blackberries should also be pruned.
  • Pruning blueberry bushes should be performed after harvest has finished, ideally in late winter.

Spring

  • Pruning citrus trees by removing diseased or dead wood. Also cut out any crossed branches that are rubbing.
  • Thin some small fruits on early-season stone (apricots, plum and peach) and pome (apple and pear) fruit trees to improve the quality and size of the remaining fruit.
  • Passionfruit vines can be pruned in mid- to late spring.

Summer

  • Continue thinning small fruit on late-season deciduous fruit varieties into the early part of summer.
  • Carry out summer pruning on deciduous fruit trees after harvesting in late summer.
  • Cut out summer-fruiting raspberry canes (floricanes) that have completely finished fruiting.

Autumn

  • Summer pruning of deciduous pome and stone fruit trees should be completed by early autumn.
  • Shoots of blackberry hybrids that have fruited should be cut down.

Other

  • Bananas (yes, you can even grow some varieties of Bananas in Melbourne) are cut to the ground after fruiting. Each plant will be replaced by an emerging sucker.
  • Avocados are pruned lightly immediately after harvest. Trim only one side or the top of the tree annually. Rotate the part that you trim each year to maximise fruit production.

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