How, When, Why to Prune Apple Trees

Apple tree pruning

Pumpkin spice? Pffffftttt. I can take it or leave it. For me, fall means fresh-picked apples turned into mile-high pies with a crumb topping and ice cream, warm apple crisp right out of the oven, and freshly pressed cider.

Having an apple tree in my backyard means easy access to such deliciousness but with it comes the basic maintenance and uptake of a fruit tree, including pruning the tree annually. Pruning an apple tree isn’t as easy as pie, but it is important to understand some basics — including when to cut, when not to, why, and especially how.

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There are mixed opinions on whether pruning an apple tree is similar to other fruit trees in your yard. Peach and nectarine trees produce fruit only on growth from the previous season so they need a great deal of pruning. Apple trees and pears lie on the other end of the spectrum because they produce fruit on long-lived branched called fruiting spurs, so they need less work. In between these two extremes are all of your other fruit trees.

So I’m going to focus solely on apple trees today, but you can use the same general idea on pear trees if you have them in your yard.

How Your Apple Tree Grows, Produces Fruit

To start with, it’s important to understand how an apple tree grows and produces fruit. Then you’ll understand the tree pruning process.

Every year, your apple tree will put on new growth, as all trees do. This means new shoots develop and grow. Existing branches add new growth, too. To determine where this new growth starts, look for a ring or band of tissue that completely encircles the shoot. It is important to be able to spot where the new growth is when it comes to pruning.

At the same time your tree puts on new growth, it also creates new flower buds in the season prior to blooming. So this summer it creates the flower buds that will open up next spring. These buds develop at the tips of short shoots and on spurs (short thick growths on branches), in apple trees. Flower buds are more round in shape and swollen at the base compared to buds that develop into leaves.

Buds that develop along the length of a shoot rarely develop into flowers. The following year they may grow into spurs that develop flower buds if they aren’t pruned incorrectly and triggered to develop new shoots.

Author Amanda Shiffler and her apple tree
Author Amanda Shiffler holds one of the apples from her tree.

Pruning Your Apple Tree

I think it’s safe to say that very few people like thinning their vegetable gardens or pruning their fruit trees. It seems counterintuitive to remove a plant or part of a plant that is growing fine. The truth is though when done correctly, proper pruning of fruit trees leads to better fruit production.

So let’s talk a bit more in-depth of the why’s, the when’s, and the how’s of pruning apple trees.

Why You Need to Prune

Your grass needs to be mowed and your hair needs to be cut periodically for good health (and to look nice). Your apple tree benefits from regular pruning, too. Here’s why:

  • Too much shading through the interior of the tree or on lower branches is bad. A lack of sunlight decreases flowering and weakens branches.
  • Pruning improves air circulation to lessen the incidence of pests and disease problems.
  • It removes dead and dying branches.
  • Keeping the tree at a manageable height allows easier access when it’s time to pick.
  • An open canopy encourages larger, healthier fruit.

Less fruit on a tree will lead to bigger apples: A tree overcrowded with fruit produces smaller apples over the course of the season. Think about it this way: A single tree has a given amount of resources. It has only so much water, sunlight, and nutrients in any growing season. The fruit on the branches divide these resources. Fewer apples mean each gets more resources to grow larger. More fruit means fewer resources available to each, resulting in smaller apples.

When to Prune

Late winter or early spring while the tree is still dormant and before active growth begins for the season is the best time to prune apple trees. Buds are easier to see and work around and cut wounds have a chance to dry up before insects come out in the spring. You will see less effect on winter hardiness and overall tree health. Pruning lessens winter hardiness to a small extent, making the tree susceptible to winter injury from severely low temperatures for 2-3 weeks after planting.

Summer pruning can be done in late July or August, but you must take care to not severely prune your tree at this time as it weakens the tree. A weak tree slightly before harvest can lead to a decrease in fruit size and quality, or an increased possibility of snapped branches when they are loaded with fruit.

How to Prune

Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty about how to prune your apple tree. The how-to part of pruning includes the basic shapes you can prune your tree into, the cuts you’ll need to make, tools you should have on hand to use, and the actual steps of pruning.

3 Tree Shapes

There are three basic ways you can shape your apple tree.

1. Natural. 

A natural shape simply means you let your tree grow, with little pruning. This often means a large tree that is hard to reach the top of and smaller apples overall. While some people prefer this aesthetic, healthwise, it’s not in the best interest of your tree.

2. Cultivated into a specific shape.

  • Single leader tree: one trunk that dominates and grows upward, has several side limbs oriented horizontally off the main leader, and numerous fruiting branches that originate from the scaffold branches. Good for trees that are naturally short.
  • Multiple leaders: two or more dominate branches grow upward and angle out away from the tree center. This pruning style helps to maintain a shorter tree when you are growing a full-sized variety.

3. Espaliered to fit a small space.

When a tree is pruned into an espalier shape, it is pruned to grow along a wall or trellis. This creates a vine-like “flat” tree. This isn’t a natural growth pattern for fruit trees, but it may work for those with limited yard space.

2 Types of Cuts

There are two basic types of pruning cuts: thinning cuts and heading cuts. The difference between them lies in how much of a shoot or branch is removed and how it affects the overall number of branches on your tree. In general, thinning cuts reduce the overall amount of branches on your tree while heading cuts increase the number by encouraging new shoot growth.

  1. Thinning: the complete removal of the shoot or branch at its base where it joins the rest of the limb. This type of cut has minimal impact on the appearance of the tree. It is useful for removing dead branches or when the tree has an excessive number of limbs or branches. Thinning cuts will increase the development of flower buds.
  2. Heading: removal of part of the shoot or branch so that part of it remains on the tree. Heading cuts are useful for shortening branches. The heading cut changes the direction in which the shoot or branch is growing and consequently alters the tree appearance. It also invigorates the buds and shoots that are closest to the cut. A heading cut removed the terminal bud at the end of the shoot resulting in several shoots developing below the cut, creating a denser canopy.

Pruning Tools

A mature apple tree will have various size branches, so you are going to need a couple of different tools to get the job done efficiently.

Also known as hand pruners or pruning shears. They are small in size to fit comfortably in your hand. They work well for small branches that are easy to reach. Pruners have two different cutting mechanisms: bypass and anvil. Bypass pruners are better suited for cutting live branches; anvil pruners are best for dead branches.

A good pair of loppers will cut through small to medium-sized branches and extend your reach a bit. Long handles allow you to reach branches higher up, plus they provide more cutting leverage for making thicker cuts. Just like pruners, they can either be bypass or anvil.

This is a must-have for larger branches. It is recommended to use a saw for anything larger in diameter than your thumb, but I’ll admit I use my loppers for branches up to about 1-inch in diameter.

It’s important that your tools are sharp and clean when you are pruning fruit trees or any tree for that matter. Sharp tools result in cuts that quickly go through branches or stems without leaving a jagged, rough edge where the cut is made.

Before you start pruning dip the cutting surfaces of pruners and loppers in isopropyl alcohol and allow them to air dry, disinfecting the metal. Dampen a clean cloth with isopropyl alcohol and carefully wipe down your saw blade. This prevents the transfer and cross-contamination of any fungal or disease problems that may have been picked up from other plants/trees in your yard.

When you’re done for the day, carefully wipe off the sawdust and tree sap with a rag. Squirt a small amount of solvent on moving parts to keep them lubricated and free of rust.

Apple Tree Pruning in 5 Steps

I’ll admit, pruning isn’t a quick process. It can take a lot of work, depending on the scope of the project and the current state of your apple tree. The basic logic behind pruning is simple, though: Remove all dead branches, create the overall shape you desire, make detailed cuts to open up the interior canopy, and then finish with a basic trim.

  1. Assess your tree to start with. Look at the size and shape of the tree, paying careful attention to note crowded spots, dead branches, and limbs that are taller or longer than you want. This helps you decide what needs to be pruned and what cuts need to be made.
  2. Remove any dead or damaged wood, or diseased branches first. At this point also remove any new growth coming from the base of the trunk; these “suckers” originate from the rootstock instead of the fruiting variety that has been grafted on the upper part of the tree. Remove with a thinning cut if the entire branch is dead. If just the tip is dead, remove the dead wood with a heading cut just above a side branch.
  3. Fix the overall size and shape. Remove branches too tall/long with thinning cuts or shorten them with heading cuts. This means the terminal branch(es) at the top of the tree, as well as the scaffolding branches that come out from the central leader.
  4. Open up the canopy through the center of the tree. Main branches need sufficient room for their lateral branches, and sunlight needs to access the interior and lower branches on the tree. Remove branches too close to one another or those growing back into the center of the tree with a thinning cut. Remove any branches growing in toward the center of the tree with a thinning cut.
  5. Give the tree a haircut. Known as heading back, this encourages branches to grow shorter and thicker, as well as triggering lower growth in the canopy. It keeps your apple tree from continuing to grow upward and outward. Remove 20% to 30% of the active growth from last year using thinning cuts. This is where it’s important to be able to locate where the new growth starts. Prune the branches back to about one-quarter inch above an outward facing bud. This prevents new branches from growing into the center of the tree.

Tips for Effective Apple Tree Pruning

To finish up, keep these following tips in mind.

  • Be careful to avoid over-pruning. If a tree has gone a couple of years without pruning, split the task. Do some pruning this year, followed by more next year. That limits the stress you put on it at one time. Prune less-vigorous trees more severely, to see them (hopefully) rebound quicker.
  • If you have two live branches close together and you need to decide which one to remove, prune the branch with fewer buds/blossoms or is generally unproductive. Always keep the healthier more productive branch of the two.
  • Remove large branches in smaller sections to make it safer for you.
  • Select branches to prune based on the angle in which they grow. Aim to keep branches that grow upward at an angle; remove ones that grow straight upward or down toward the ground. Watersprouts are the branches that grow straight up, they are usually too vigorous and cast shade on lower branches. Branches that point down are typically weak and won’t bear fruit.
  • Avoid pruning newly planted trees (after an initial pruning to determine the shape) the first few years until they begin fruiting, as well as young trees the first couple of seasons they produce fruit. Pruning encourages leafy shoots instead of fruit-bearing, so it will delay fruit-bearing in juvenile trees.
  • Clean up all of the downed branches when you finish pruning. That prevents any possible diseases or insect pests from reinfecting your tree.
Amanda Shiffler

Amanda Shiffler

Most comfortable with soil under her fingernails, Amanda has an enthusiasm for gardening, agriculture, and all things plant-related. With a master's degree in agriculture and more than a decade of experience gardening and tending to her lawn, she combines her plant knowledge and knack for writing to share what she knows and loves.