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A mass of yellow 'Golden Hornet' crab apples

Pruning fruit trees in winter

Take a look at this guide to winter pruning fruit trees like apples, medlars and pears.

It’s easy to get apple, pear and other fruit trees into good shape if you follow a few simple guidelines. Pruning twice a year, in winter and summer, will keep them productive and healthy.


Without pruning, they can become straggly and less productive. Cutting back branches and shoots in the dormant season will concentrate sap flow in spring into fewer buds, resulting in strong growth. By contrast, summer pruning limits vigour by removing nitrogen-rich young growth, and will promote flower and fruit formation.

So, in the early years of a fruit tree’s life, when you want it to grow strongly to create a sturdy framework of branches, it’s vital to prune in the dormant season. Once it has reached the required size and shape, most of the pruning can be done in summer.

Before you start pruning, make sure you’re familiar with our list of plants to avoid pruning in winter – take a look at our guide to summer pruning fruit trees for more information.

You will need:

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:

Read our advice on pruning fruit trees in winter, below.

Medium and large apple trees benefit from having vigorous young shoots cut back and overcrowded branches thinned in winter.

Remove thin or damaged shoots

First remove any thin or damaged shoots and branches. Cut them back to where they sprout from the branch or main stem. When the tree isn’t in leaf, it’s much easier to get the right results, as you can clearly see the form of the plant as well as the position of the fruit buds.

Pruning a thin shoot from a dormant apple tree
Pruning a thin shoot from a dormant apple tree

Prune last season’s growth

Next, prune last season’s growth back. You need to reduce the previous season’s sideshoots back to between four and six buds from the base. The younger stems are silvery-grey in colour, so are easy to distinguish from the old, brown branches.

Pruning back last season's growth
Pruning back last season’s growth

Cut the main leader

Finally, cut the main leader at the top of the tree to around half its length, just above an outward facing bud, with a sloping cut to help shed water.

Pruning mature trees

Medium and large apple trees benefit from having vigorous young shoots cut back and overcrowded branches thinned in winter. Open up the centre of the tree so air can circulate and sun can reach developing fruits in summer.

Sawing a branch from a mature fruit tree in winter
Sawing a branch from a mature fruit tree in winter

You can also remove old branches that are unproductive or badly placed, cutting back to where they join a thicker branch or the trunk.

Where established apples and pears have been pruned this way in previous years, the mass of strong regrowth that is promoted can be removed altogether or thinned out.

Shaping up young trees

Prune freshly planted apple and pear trees, and those up to four years old, in winter so they form a good framework of branches.

Reduce the height of the leading shoot and cut back side branches to channel sap into a few buds low down. This strengthens the main shoots.

Pruning a young fruit tree
Pruning a young fruit tree

Continued winter pruning in the early years encourages small buds to form near the base of stems that will develop into fruiting spurs. Pruning young trees also reduces unwanted top growth and conserves energy, which can then be used to boost the root system.

Ripe yellow quinces on the tree
Ripe yellow quinces on the tree

Fruit trees to prune in winter

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Quince