New to pruning? Then we’ll cover all you need to know about how to prune apple trees, including why, when, which, with what, and how in eight easy steps.

Why to Prune Apple Trees

  • We prune apple trees for four main reasons.
    1. First, to make the tree easy to maintain and harvest by controlling the height and shape.
    2. Secondly, to maintain a healthy tree by removing dead, diseased or damaged wood.
    3. Thirdly, to improve air circulation which reduces pests and diseases.
    4. Fourthly, to let sunlight reach the fruits so they can grow healthy and large. 

When to Prune Apple Trees

  • It is best to prune an apple tree when it’s still dormant, this means early spring, about two weeks after the late frost. Not only are the buds easier to see and cut, but the cuts will also heal more quickly.  
  • If you prune in the fall, then new growth will start but will be damaged by the cold winter. If you prune in the early winter, then the open cut can be susceptible to diseases. 
  • If you see dead, diseased, or damaged, wood, you should cut these off as soon as you notice, no matter the time in the year so that the tree isn’t damaged any further.

Which Apple Trees to Prune

  • Wait to do the heavy pruning in the third year of growth after planting since this will allow the tree to establish itself. 
  • If your apple tree provides a lot of shade, then it needs to be pruned.
    • When there is a lot of pruning to do, then space out the pruning over several seasons. 

What to Prune Apple Trees With

  • The tools to use depends on which type of branch you are cutting. In all cases though, be sure to sterilize the tools with hot soapy water or disinfectant to prevent any damage or infection.
    • For small branches and twigs, use hand pruners. 
    • For large branches about 1” thick, use loppers. These provide good leverage.
    • For branches about 3” thick and more, use a saw. 

How to Prune Apple Trees

Step 0: Aim for a Central Leader, Pyramidal Form

  • Apple trees should have a pyramidal and conical shape, with shorter branches at the top so that they can allow sunlight to reach the lower branches. 
  • Additionally, apple trees should be pruned with a central leader form, with one central branch growing vertically from the trunk.

Step 1: Remove Any Dead, Diseased, or Damaged Limbs (3 D’s)

  • You know if a branch is dead if it’s brittle and breaks very easily.
  • You usually know if a branch is diseased if the wood is a different color than the other branches around it. 
  • You’ll see a damaged branch when it has partially broken from the weight of the fruits. Additionally, when two branches have crossed and rubbed against one another this can also damage the wood.
  • Once you have identified the branches with the 3 D’s, then cut the wood back to the nearest bud where the wood is still healthy. 

Step 2: Prune Competing Central Leader Branches

  • Your apple tree should have one central leading branch which grows vertically from the trunk. 
  • If there are multiple central leading branches, then choose the healthier and stronger one and cut the rest so that the tree remains strong.

Step 3: Prune Non-Primary Scaffold Branches

  • Your apple tree should have 2-6 primary scaffold branches (depending on the size of the tree) which connect to the central lead branch and are evenly spaced around it.
    • If two scaffold branches are too close to one another, remove one.
    • If you look at the tree from the top, it should look like a star.
  • These scaffold branches should have a 45 to 50 degree angle from the trunk.
    • When the angle is less than this, then the branch will fall from the weight of the fruit. 
    • When the angle is more than this, then there won’t be as much fruit on the branches. 

Step 4: Prune Suckers

  • When shoots or branches grow near the base of the trunk prune them so that the shape is preserved. Suckers shouldn’t grow below the canopy of the tree.

Step 5: Prune Downward & Inward Growing Branches

  • First, identify the branches growing downward. Then prune them since they won’t be able to bear the weight of the fruit.  
  • Also prune any branches growing inward so that they don’t rub against other branches.

Step 6: Prune the Whorls

  • Whorls are places where three or more small branches grow from the same location. Once you identify the whorls then choose the healthier and strongest one, and prune the rest. After all, the branch won’t be able to support all of the small branches growing in this one location. 

Step 7: Prune Back All Branches

  • In order for the stems to become thicker and develop flowers cut all branches back by ⅓ of its original length. However, make sure to make these cuts just above a bud that faces outward in order for the tree to have a healthy shape. 

Step 8: Thin the Buds

  • Lastly, thin out the fruiting buds so that they are 4-6” apart. This will ensure that the branch bears just enough weight from the apples. 

And voila! You are done! If you have any questions, we are here to help!

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