Find all the information you need to prune an apple tree in this guide. Learn about the tools, the best time to prune, frequency of pruning, and how to prune an apple tree in this instructional guide.
Spring will be here before you know it, and it’s time to start thinking about getting some work done to get the garden and orchard ready. One of the tasks that need to get done is the pruning of dormant fruit trees.
As garden enthusiasts, we always want to think a few seasons ahead. If you grow your own apple trees like I do, you’ll want to maximize your fall fruit harvest. This will enable you to have an abundance of apples not only for yourself, but for your friends and family too! To accomplish this, you’ll want to prepare ahead of time by pruning your apple trees early in the year. Pruning is a great way to get more out of these trees!
With all of this in mind, let’s talk about the how to prune an apple tree the right way in order to get the most out of your harvest come fall. .
Assess and Gather the Best Tools for the Job
Before you begin, it is important to assess the tree. Take a look at its overall shape and structure. Identify any areas that need special attention. Look for dead, diseased, or damaged wood, and consider any problem spots. These are what you will want to remove first.
But, before you head out to prune your tree(s), make sure you have all the tools you’ll need. You may also want to tie your hair back, wear a hat, or put on a bandana. The job can get messy, and branches can pull at your hair.
Be sure to also sharpen and sterilize your cutting tools. Maintaining your tools will make the job easier and prevent the spread of disease.
Below are some tools of the trade that I use when pruning fruit trees:
- Durable Garden Gloves
- Sturdy Lace Up Shoes
- Sharp Pruning Shears
- Utility Belt for Holding Tools as You Climb
- Lopping Shears
- Extendable Saw for Hard-to-Reach Branches or Larger Boughs
- Ladder and Rope
- Rake, Garden Cart, or Wheelbarrow for Cleanup
Additionally, always have someone nearby and let family members know that you are about to start pruning. This is for safety reasons in the event of a fall or injury.
Back To Eden's PAUL GAUTSHI Video ON HOW TO PRUNE APPLE TREES
I watched a video on YouTube several years ago showing how to prune apple trees. It all began to make sense, and now I watch the same video every year before pruning begins, to remind me of what the trees should look like afterward.
Over the last three years, I feel like my trees are finally taking the shape that they are supposed to. Thank you to L2Survive, who created this wonderful video series documenting Paul Gautschi’s Back to Eden garden.
The Importance of Sunlight and Airflow
When getting ready to prune an apple tree, keep in mind that you want to allow natural sunlight and air to penetrate deep into the interior cavity of the canopy. This means you will want to thin out the inside branch structure within the tree.
When natural sunlight reaches the interior branches and leaves of your apple tree, it will bear more and produce larger fruit.
Airflow is also important. Trees need to feel the gentle breeze and be refreshed by the wind. If foliage within the tree canopy becomes too dense and packed with branches, the air inside can become stagnant and smothering. Additionally, fruit won’t have much room to grow.
An open and airy tree interior enables fruit to ripen and grow to its full size. On this note, be sure to clear away weeds, brush, and overgrown bushes from around the base of your apple tree. Open and sunny areas are ideal for apple trees to grow to their fullest potential.
The Best Time to Prune an Apple Tree
Pick a nice day with low wind and clear skies, with temperatures above freezing. You want to be able to clearly see your work and avoid having to quit early due to rain or other disruptive weather.
Also, avoid heavy pruning during late spring, summer or fall. During these times, the tree is very active, and any major pruning could put undue stress on the tree.
Pruning during the growing season can cause excessive sap flow, increase the risk of disease, and damage new growth. An exception to this rule is if you see damaged or diseased wood. Then you’ll want to remove it as soon as possible.
For instance, over this last summer of 2022, many states experienced severe drought. As a result, some trees experienced burned and scorched branches. In these types of situations, damaged branches can be removed as needed.
Fall is not the time to prune an apple tree or any of its healthy branches. You can however thin the fruit. As fruit begins to appear, you may want to remove 1/3 of the fruit from their clusters. Where you have 3 or 4 apples growing, you can remove one or two. This will enable the remaining fruit to grow larger and more robust.
In Connecticut, the best time to prune an apple tree or other orchard trees is during the late winter, right before spring. During this time, fruit trees are dormant.
If you decide to wait and prune in the spring, this is fine also. Just be sure to do the pruning before the first new growth appears. You want to be able to clearly see your branches and the overall form of the tree before leaves appear and obstruct the view.
Pruning Young Trees
To make fruit trees more productive, easier to manage and better able to support heavy crop loads, they are trained into particular shapes. Formative pruning (also referred to as framework pruning) is carried out in the first three years of planting a young tree to create or ‘form’ the shape, and establish a framework of main branches.
When a young tree is first purchased, it may already have some branching, or it may be a ‘whip’ which is basically a long, straight stem with no branches at all. Occasionally a garden nursery will carry out the first year’s pruning to begin establishing a tree shape, either a vase form or a central leader form.
Once your apple tree is established, and you’ve started the formative pruning, future pruning will become easier over the coming years and will be more like light maintenance. What’s more, after about 4 to 5 years, you’ll start reaping the rewards for all your labor, and your tree will start to bear fruit.
The main idea when pruning young apple trees is to remove all unnecessary branches, so your apple tree can put all of its energy into strengthening and reinforcing its main support boughs. This practice will enable your apple tree to thrive.
The vase form is the most commonly used tree shape for fruit trees, especially in backyard gardens. The cup-shaped base allows for increased branching toward the top and more space below, allowing you to plant small shrubs such as berries, taller herbs or companion plants beside the tree. This design is universal and can be used with any fruit tree.
Open Up The Interior Canopy Space
As I mentioned earlier, try to maintain an open and airy center canopy within your apple tree and make sure your scaffold branches are well-spaced. It’s vital to give interior branches a lot of room to grow as this helps ensure that the tree has a strong structure and can support the full weight of seasonal fruit. Space the remaining branches evenly around the center of the tree, as much as it is possible.
Tackle the Vertical Branches First
When you decide it’s time to prune an apple tree, the new vertical growth should be pruned first. These types of branches are often called ‘suckers’ or ‘water sprouts’ and should be removed. Apples tend to grow best on diagonal and slightly horizontal branches. Ideal branch angles are between 45 and 90 degrees. Vertical branches seldom fruit and are also harder to harvest from. Plus, vertical branches can make your apple tree much too tall to easily access.
Eliminate Crowding and Competition
Some branches just don’t have any manners. They try to crowd, brush against, rest upon, or otherwise invade the space of other nearby branches. This mostly happens with new growth trying to install itself near larger, more established branches.
Such intrusive types should be removed to protect the foundational or ‘scaffold’ branches. Scaffold branches and boughs form the prominent structure of the tree. Additionally, always avoid pruning the center lead trunk of the tree until it reaches your desired height.
Pruning Older, Overgrown, and Neglected Trees
You know your apple tree is overgrown if you can’t easily climb into it. It’s time to trim out some of the interior branches and make the boughs of your tree more accessible.
When left unattended for too long, apple trees can become overgrown. As a result, fruit production may be adversely affected. Even worse, the health of the tree can suffer.
Also, if you see that your older tree has begun to reduce its fruit output, this is a clear sign that it needs to be pruned.
When pruning overgrown trees, keep in mind that you only want to remove up to 1/3 of the trees mass. Any more than this and you could damage the tree.
A well trained and maintained tree will need very little pruning. You may even be able to go two or three years between pruning.
However, if you see certain branches are not producing well compared to others, it may be time to remove or cut them back. Just make sure they are not essential to the overall structural integrity of the tree.
Dead, Diseased, or Damaged Wood
Make sure you only use clean and sharp pruning shears to remove damaged wood. Try to make clean cuts and prune damaged branches back to the point of origin or even as far back as the nearest healthy branch. In some cases, you may need to prune back to the trunk if the disease or damage is widespread. Also note, before continuing to trim and prune your apple tree, sterilize your shears before moving on to healthy wood, so as to prevent further contamination.
If you see any sagging or greater than 90-degree angle branches, be sure to trim these off. These branches are weaker and can be prone to breakage. Removing them will help the tree grow newer and stronger branches in their place.
Where to Make the Cut
When you prune, make angled cuts about a quarter inch above a bud at about a 45-degree angle. Trim back branches to a bud that is growing in the direction you want. Remember, you want the tree to grow open and outward, so don’t choose a bud that is going to grow back into the center of the tree. When taking out a whole branch, trim right at the collar. Others will tell you to cut above it, but I follow Paul’s way of doing it since it works so well for him.
Branches toward the top of the tree should be shorter than the branches near the base of the tree. Similarly, most of the pruning should occur near the top of the tree. This will give the tree a pleasing shape and keep the bulk of the fruit right where you can easily reach it.
A good rule of thumb is to thin out the branches so that a bird can fly through without its wings touching a branch. That’s about six inches between branches.
Seek the Help of a Professional If You’re Stumped
No pun intended, but if you are unsure about how to prune an apple tree, it might be a good idea to seek professional assistance, as this will get you the best results.
A certified arborist or horticulturist can help you assess your apple tree, and they can provide you with guidance on the best pruning techniques for your specific situation.
Additionally, having a professional teach you how to prune is a good investment that will help you in the years to come. This is especially true if your apple tree has been neglected and needs a little more TLC than you know how to give.
Get the Whole Family Involved
For those of you who know your way around an apple tree, why not choose a day, like a nice Saturday, when you can have the whole family over. Young and old alike, will be well entertained.
While you get ready to prune an apple tree or trees, put someone in charge of the music and make it a tree trimming party. Keep the smaller kids occupied with yard games and/or brush cleanup. Designate someone to be in charge of the BBQ grill, as you’ll be famished by the time you’re done pruning. Have a few other people inside the house making lemonade, refreshments, and side dishes for dinner. If you have a lot of trees in your orchard, assign still others to their own individual tree. The more the merrier to help the pruning job get done quickly.
Also, be sure to save the applewood. You can have an applewood smoked meal toward the close of the day. Finish off the evening with smores and a campfire to make it even more magical.
Even the most basic garden activities can be made into a fun family tradition. The tree climbing youngsters in your family will surely thank you for maintaining and pruning your apple trees, come apple season.
Just be sure to give friends and family a nice share of your apple harvest later on in the year, as a small thank you for all their help with pruning.
Celebrate the Abundance
I’m a firm believer in making the most out of ordinary tasks. Life is so much more enjoyable when we are mindful and present in the moment. With joyous appreciation and reverence, we can harvest from Mother Nature’s bounty.
Caring for apple trees has been one of the most rewarding endeavors for me. Apple season gives me something to look forward to as the year draws to a close, and harvesting apples encourages me to make the most of the season. Whatever fruit is not eaten fresh gets stored in my root cellar. From there, my harvested apples are then transformed into pies, cookies, cider, cinnamon rolls, jams, butters, and other sweet treats. Therefore, as you’re pruning this late winter, think about all the wonderful things you’ll be able to make when autumn arrives, and your trees are laden with juicy apples.
Apple trees have other benefits too. Not only can apple trees increase the value of your property, but they are a low maintenance and sustainable food resource you and your family will enjoy for years to come, and we’re all about sustainability and self-sufficiency.
Of course, us humans are not the only ones that enjoy nature’s abundance. Many wild creatures do too. Did you know that apple trees are an important resource for wild animals like deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other mammals? Songbirds especially benefit from the shelter of an apple tree.
Here in Connecticut and New England, we are fortunate to have apple trees growing naturally in the wild. So if you love apple trees like I do, but don’t yet have any of your own, here is a resource for picking apples in the wild or from local farms in the state.
In conclusion, pruning is a critical step in maintaining the overall health and function of your apple trees. By following the steps outlined in this guide you can help ensure that your apple trees grow strong, healthy, and continue to produce a generous harvest year after year.
It’s my hope that you’ll join me in the rewarding and fun adventure of growing and caring for apple trees.
Thanks for stopping by, and happy tree trimming!
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