If you have apple trees, knowing how to prune apple trees correctly is critical to the health of your trees and the amount of harvest you’ll receive. Learn how to prune apple trees in winter or if your climate is more suited to summer pruning.
I may be strange, but pruning fruit trees is one of my favorite garden chores each year. It brings me joy to know how I want my fruit trees to look ten years from now, and to create that look through pruning is so rewarding.
From there, you’ll want to read the following posts:
- How to Treat Fruit Trees Organically (When to Spray for Disease)
- How to Care for Fruit Trees in Fall & Winter
- Planting a Fruit Tree Guild
- Heirloom Apple Varieties & Saving Them for Future Generations
- How to Grow Fruit Trees
- Growing Fruit Trees in Pots
Why Prune Fruit Trees
Pruning fruit trees is necessary for many reasons.
- It helps to reduce disease by removing diseased or dead branches.
- Opens up the canopy for air circulation.
- Allows adequate sunlight for fruit ripening.
- When done properly, pruning keeps your tree healthy and vigorous.
When fruit trees are pruned incorrectly, quite a bit of harm can be done to the tree resulting in unhealthy or disease-prone trees, less fruit production, or even trees that won’t make it through the winter.
There’s no need to panic, I’ll walk you through every step.
When to Prune Apple Trees
Prune apple trees when they’re dormant, and you have at least two weeks of dry weather after making your pruning cut. Apple trees are pruned in later winter or early spring before the tree begins bud break (when the leaf and fruit buds start to unfurl) in eastern areas of the United States.
However, the best time to prune apple trees in the Pacific Northwest is during the summer when the tree enters into a second dormant phase. You should never prune an apple tree in the fall.
Because your fresh pruning cuts leave the tree susceptible and open to disease, you don’t want to prune when it will be wet for two to three weeks after you prune. Note: ice and snow are considered dry regarding fungus and bacteria spores. In wet parts of the country, like the Pacific Northwest, the best time to prune an apple tree is in July. For more on fruit tree care, read How to Care for Fruit Trees in Fall and Winter.
For years I pruned in late winter and early spring, as you’ll see in the video below, but I learned from a nursery expert that this was likely the reason I was beginning to see some signs of disease in my trees and have now switched to summer pruning only (with the exception of shaping and cutting off dead parts of the tree early spring).
After selecting your pruning time based on climate, it’s important to have proper pruning tools.
Types of Pruning Cuts
It’s important to make the correct type of pruning cuts. Whenever you’re pruning your apple tree, make sure the cut is clean. Choosing the proper pruning tools and keeping them sharp will ensure this.
When removing a full branch, cut the branch right at the collar, close to the trunk. Look at where the branch meets the trunk. Cut straight up and down, right next to the collar, but not into it.
Pruning to a Bud
When tipping a branch or cutting out a diseased portion (but not the entire branch), you want to find an outward-facing bud to make your pruning cut. Cut at a 45-degree angle about 1/4 inch away from the bud.
Before pruning, always clean your shears, loppers, and saws with alcohol to avoid spreading any disease between trees and allow them to dry thoroughly before use.
- Folding Saw – Heavy Duty Pruning Handsaw for larger branches.
- Steel Pruning Shears for smaller branches and bushes.
- Long-handled loppers for medium branches or spots that are harder to get into.
Often I learn best by seeing, so if you’re looking for how to prune apple trees video, I got ya covered below!
How to Prune an Apple Tree
Pruning an apple tree is very similar to pruning most fruit trees (peaches, pears, plums, cherries, etc.). The biggest difference is whether you’re allowing a leader branch to grow straight up the middle of the tree or if you’ll create an open canopy with multiple main branches that spread out to create the canopy.
- Prune out any dead, diseased, or broken branches. Deadwood is often darker or black. The bark may peel or be split, and no new buds form. Signs of disease are an open wound, discolored wood, oozing wounds, or peeling bark with discoloration. Any time you see disease or a dead branch, remove it. If wet conditions are present, cut past the disease (where you no longer see discoloration in the wood). Once you have dry weather, then make your final proper pruning cut, either at an outward growing lateral or, if removing the entire branch, at the collar. Sometimes branches look dead, but if you scrape back the bark with your fingernail, it may be green. This is a good test before cutting something you’re unsure of.
- Remove any sucker shoots. These are shoots that grow near the base of the tree, off the trunk or near it. Remove sucker shoots as soon as you see them, don’t wait for winter or summer.
- Remove water shoots. Watershoots grow straight upwards and don’t produce fruit. They sap strength from the tree and shade fruit and lower branches.
- Prune any branches that grow downwards. These branches don’t provide fruit and can cause a branch to weaken over time and break.
- Remove crossing or rubbing branches. Branches that cross will eventually cause rubbing, which opens the tree up to disease and insects.
- Keep the center of the tree clear. Prune inward growing branches to keep the center of the tree clear for airflow and to avoid shading your fruit. You don’t want overpopulation of foliage because it’s going to shade it too much and will keep your fruit from becoming ripe. If you have a lot of younger shoots growing straight into the center of the tree, remove them.
- Choose well placed lateral branches to maintain healthy scaffolding. You want to make sure you don’t have branches that are right on top of one another. They’ll shade the lower branch and create an uneven tree. These branches should grow outwards rather than upward and be 4 to 6 inches apart.
How to Prune Old Apple Trees
- Start by removing dead or diseased and broken branches first. Next, remove any sucker shoots.
- Remove branches that cross or are rubbing against one another.
- Remove lower branches, especially those within two feet of the ground on dwarf or semi-dwarf trees and within four feet on standard apple trees.
- Thin out branches at the top to allow light to penetrate the upper canopy to the middle and lower branches.
- If scaffolding branches are too close together, pick the stronger of the two and remove the other.
When a tree has been neglected and not pruned for several years, never remove more than 1/3 of the tree. Spread the pruning out over several years to get it fully pruned and back into shape.
When in doubt, take pruning slowly. You can shape and prune your fruit trees over multiple years.
Remember the cuts you made each year and watch how the tree responds. This act of pruning and observing will teach you so much about how to get a fruit tree to the shape you desire and that’s best for your climate.
More Resources for Growing Fruit:
- How to Prune a Blueberry Bush for a Larger Harvest
- How to Plant Raspberries – Soil Prep, Growing & Caring for your Raspberry Plants
- How to Prune Raspberries
- How to Grow Elderberries
- How to Prune Elderberry Bushes for Maximum Growth
- Tips to Get Your Homestead (& Fruit Trees) Ready for Winter
- Planting Berry Bushes & Fruit Trees
- When and How to Plant Fruit Trees
- Growing Fruit Trees in Pots
- Planting a Fruit Tree Guild
- How to Treat Fruit Trees Organically: When to Spray for Disease
- How to Care for Fruit Trees In Fall & Winter
- 5 Tips to Starting an Orchard & Growing Fruit