Pruning apple trees: why, how and when
Apples always taste best when they've been freshly picked from your own apple tree. And as well as giving you delicious fruit, an apple tree can also be your pride and joy all year round. But to make this happen, your tree needs to be healthy. To help it to flourish, you need to regularly prune it. Our guide will show you what tools you need and how best to go about it.
Light, fresh air and space: reasons to prune your tree
Every amateur gardener dreams of picking large, round and colourful apples from their apple tree. You can make this happen by pruning little and often, since trees grow more vigorously, healthier and in a more controlled manner when they are pruned regularly. This is particularly the case for fruit trees, as pruning helps to ensure that the fruit gets enough light, air and space to grow. The key things to bear in mind for perfect pruning are: shortening, redirecting and thinning out. Your apple tree will thank you by flowering beautifully and producing a rich harvest.
Spring and summer: the ideal time for pruning
When your apple tree is dormant, you can grab your pruning shears with gusto. The dormant period lasts from November until March and it marks the time before the next growth phase. For apple trees, February or March are a good time for early pruning, once the frost has melted. Pruning promotes growth and directs energy to the desired buds. Thinning out your tree creates space for your apples to grow and removing dead wood and unwanted branches takes the pressure off your tree. This will leave it fit and ready for the summer.
If your tree is growing too quickly, you can fix it with a summer pruning. This is when you make cuts after the leaves have grown. Generally speaking, this happens from June until mid-September. This pruning phase helps to keep growth in check and ensures that the existing apples develop properly.
You should avoid pruning your tree between October and mid-January.
Pruning shears and a saw: the essential tools
Pruning shears are by far the most important tool you need when pruning your apple tree. They need to be sharp and sit well in your hand. For thicker branches or smaller twigs, Bosch EasyPrune cordless secateurs are a great help. Since you don't have to use as much force when cutting, you can avoid bruising branches unnecessarily. For branches that are too big to cut using your pruning shears, use a pruning saw. Depending on how tall your tree is, you might need to use a ladder. But be careful: make sure you place it on flat, even ground and check that the ladder is secure and doesn't wobble before you get started. Once you have finished pruning, a shredder is useful for disposing of the clippings.
An overview of the most important tools:
- Pruning shears
- Pruning saw
Technology and expertise: the basics
What should I remove?
Each time you prune your tree, remove all damaged or diseased branches, as well as inward-growing and crossing branches, since they obstruct air circulation and sunlight. Small water sprouts, which are shoots that grow straight upwards, sap energy from your tree, so get rid of them. Shrivelled or rotting apples should also be removed.
- Remove damaged or diseased branches
- Cut away inward-growing and crossing branches
- Eliminate water sprouts and shrivelled or rotting fruit
How do I prune correctly?
When pruning branches and twigs, always cut at a downward-facing 45-degree angle to allow water to run off easily and to ensure the wound is less susceptible to bacterial or fungal infection. When pruning branches, always cut above an outward-facing bud to make sure that new shoots grow outwards. When removing branches near the trunk or a bough, cut just above the branch collar, which is the swelling at the base of the branch.
- Cut at a downward-facing 45-degree angle
- Always cut above outward-facing buds
- Always remove branches above the branch collar
Pruning apple trees: a step-by-step guide
Step 1: Take a good look at your tree as a whole and think about which parts need pruning. Identify damaged or diseased branches. See where water sprouts have formed or where there are crossing branches. Does your tree crown need some more air? If so, then decide which branches need redirecting.
Step 2: Lay down some tarpaulin around the tree extending as far as the diameter of the tree crown. This will make it easier to gather and dispose of the branches and twigs you've removed once you've finished pruning.
Step 3: Take your pruning shears and prepare them for use. Applying some shear spray can protect them from tree sap or resin. Make sure your ladder is stable and positioned on solid ground. Now you can get started.
Step 4: Work from the inside out. When pruning, ensure you cut at a downward-facing 45-degree angle and that you make your cut above a bud or a branch collar. Use a saw to cut larger branches and work in two steps: first saw from below and then from above to avoid damaging the bark.
Step 5: After you've removed, shortened or redirected all the branches and twigs, you just need to dispose of the clippings. A chipper is useful for grinding up all the branch and twig clippings. This makes it easy to dispose of your waste by composting it or putting it in an organic waste bin.
Young or old: the right pruning for the age of your tree
Depending on how old your apple tree is, it may need to be pruned in a specific way to grow well and develop decent fruit later. When you plant your tree, you are already determining how it will grow later, and you can guide how it grows each time you prune it.
Pruning new plants
This type of pruning is best suited for young, freshly planted trees. It promotes tree growth and defines the tree crown. Remove the shoots which compete with the stem and shorten three to four boughs which help to form the crown. Cut back the tree a little, to ensure your tree is not overloaded.
This type of pruning gives your tree the shape you want in the first few years. You can accentuate the boughs and leading shoots and support the development of a pyramid-shaped crown. Remove or shorten inward-facing or competitive shoots. To help the tree to produce better fruits later down the line, you can tie down branches that are growing at an angle that is too steep or too flat using coir rope.
Renovating old trees
If you have an older tree that still bears fruit, then it's a good idea to maintain and renovate it. Cut off crooked or overhanging branches and slow down branches that are growing too quickly. You can redirect branches or twigs that are upward-facing by cutting back a branch to the point where a better-positioned side shoot is growing. This will allow the better-positioned shoot to grow more vigorously. Remove all water sprouts, which are small shoots that grow straight upwards.
This type of pruning ensures that your apple tree stays healthier for longer. It involves thoroughly removing weaker twigs and sprawling or overgrown branches. Thinning out the branches to ensure enough light reaches the remaining branches and twigs is especially important for older trees. This promotes air circulation and stimulates the growth of young shoots and flower-bearing shoots.
No two trees are the same. So prune accordingly.
If you have a small garden or a balcony, this doesn't mean you can't have an apple tree. There are special types of apple trees which don't develop into a standard tree with a large crown, so they are ideal if space is limited. They have no side boughs and their fruit-bearing branches usually grow straight from the trunk. These trees require much less pruning than large apple trees.
Columnar apple trees – thanks to their thin, pillar-like shape, these apple trees are ideal if you don't have much space. Another upside to these trees is that you rarely need to prune them. But to maintain the character of the tree, it's important to remove competitive shoots. And make sure you cut back the size of the tree every two to three years. When pruning, always remember to cut back to a flowering bud.
Dwarf apple trees and spindle bush apple trees – these apple trees develop their fruit-bearing branches directly from the trunk but tend to grow a bit wider than columnar trees. But generally, the same rules apply: prune them as little as possible, since they tend to grow more each time you cut them. Only remove dead, diseased or unsightly branches and shorten the height of the tree if necessary.