Pruning an apple tree in winter will help to improve its shape, reduce its size, promote better quality fruit and prevent apple tree diseases.
Thinning out some of the branches will channel the plant’s energy into fewer, but better, apples, and improve air circulation through the centre of the tree to limit pest and disease problems.
Pruning apple trees in winter also gives you the opportunity to identify and cut out any broken, weak or cankered growth, and in the case of old trees, encourage the formation of strong, vital regrowth.
While summer-pruning fruit trees encourages flowering and fruiting, pruning in winter controls the overall shape, size and health of your tree. This is because the trees are dormant in winter, so by cutting back branches and shoots, you are concentrating the flow of sap in spring into fewer buds, resulting in stronger growth.
How to prune an apple tree
Apples that are grown on dwarfing rootstocks (M9 and M27) need little pruning, but medium or large trees benefit from being cut back hard. You should aim to open up the centre of your tree so that air can circulate between the branches. This will help to minimise pests and diseases, and enable more sunlight to reach the developing fruit in summer.
Once your tree has reached the required size and shape, most pruning can be done in summer, although a small amount is still needed every winter for maintenance. So, whether your tree is fully established or newly planted, follow our tips below on how to prune your fruit trees.
Loppers, pruning saws and secateurs
Whether it’s a pair of long-handled loppers, pruning saw or secateurs, using the right tool is essential for this task. For more information read our guide to tools for pruning, and if you’re looking to update your kit, our experts have been busy testing the best pruning saws, the best secateurs and the best anvil loppers, so you can buy with confidence.
In a hurry? Here are some of the best buys from these tests:
- ARS PM-21 folding pruning saw
- Felco 640 pruning saw
- Darlac Expert Bypass DP1030A
- Niwaki GR Pro
- Felco 8 Bypass Secateurs
- Draper Deluxe Anvil Secateurs
- Corona Ratchet Cut Comfort Gel Anvil Secateurs
- Wolf Garten Telescopic Anvil Lopper
- Spear & Jackson Razorsharp Advantage Telescopic Ratchet Anvil Lopper
In this video, Monty Don demonstrates how to prune an apple tree, including which stems to remove:
More on growing apples:
You Will Need
- Long-handled loppers
- Pruning saw
Start by removing any dead, damaged or diseased branches. Cut these back to a healthy bud on the stem or remove them altogether, back to the base. Then take out old, unproductive branches, cutting back close to where they join a thicker branch or the trunk. Where established apples and pears have been pruned in this way in previous years, the mass of strong regrowth that follows can be removed or thinned out now, to prevent overcrowding. Prune out additional unwanted growth, to let in light and air.
Reduce the height of the leading shoot and cut back side branches to channel sap into a few buds lower down. This will encourage stronger, thicker main shoots, prevent unnecessary top growth and redirect energy to other growth points. This is the method to follow if you are training your trees as cordons, as this will promote vigorous, pliable shoots that can be bent into place on training wires.
Identify the previous year’s shoots by tracing down from the tips to find the growing point. Shorten these stems to around half their length, cutting just above an outward-facing bud. Remember that once the tree is more mature you’ll want to give it an open structure to maintain good air circulation, so it’s remove any inward-growing branches.
Look for vigorous shoots towards the ends of all the main branches. Cut these back by between half and two-thirds of their length. Make your cuts just above a bud – if possible one that’s pointing away from the centre of the plant, so the resulting new shoot grows outwards. Check short fruit spurs, identified by their rounded flower buds, and prune out any vigorous shoots that have grown from them. Cut them back to the point from which they grew. On old trees, remove congested fruit spurs, so the flowers and fruits have room to develop without getting damaged.