How to Prune Apple Trees in Winter - Melissa K. Norris

How to Prune Apple Trees in Winter

By Melissa Norris | Fruit

Mar 01

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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.

Pruning is necessary for many reasons, it helps to reduce disease by removing diseased or dead branches and opens up the canopy for air circulation and fruit ripening. When done properly, pruning keeps your tree healthy and vigorous, when done wrong, you can actually cause quite a bit of harm. But don’t fear, I’ll walk you through every step.

When to Prune Apple Trees

Prune apple trees when they’re dormant and you have at least 2 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 2 to 3 weeks after you prune. Note: ice and snow are considered dry in regards to 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 learned from a nursery expert that was likely the reason I was beginning to see some signs of disease in my trees and have now switched to summer pruning only.

After selecting your pruning time based on climate, it’s important to have proper pruning tools.

Pruning Tools

Before pruning, always clean your shears, loppers, and saws with alcohol to avoid spreading any disease between trees and allow them to dry fully 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 times 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

  1. 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 are forming. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Remove water shoots. Watershoots grow straight upwards and don’t produce fruit. They sap strength from the tree and shade fruit and lower branches.
  4. Prune any branches that grow downwards. These branches don’t provide fruit and can cause a branch to weaken over time and break.
  5. Remove crossing or rubbing branches. Branches that cross will eventually cause rubbing, which opens the tree up to disease and insects.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 any that are within 2 feet of the ground on dwarf or semi-dwarf trees and within 4 feet of the ground 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.

Remove sucker shoots (they grow straight up and don’t produce fruit).

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. how to prune an apple tree pruning a broken branch

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.

1. When removing a full branch, cut right at the collar close to the trunk.

To remove a full branch, go to where the branch meets the trunk. Cut straight up and down, right next to the collar, but not into it.

2. 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. 

More Resources for Growing Fruit Trees:

When to Plant Fruit Trees

When to Spray Fruit Trees- How to Treat Fruit Trees Organically

How Many Fruit & Berry Plants Per Person


About the Author

Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.