Apple trees are among the most beautiful orchard trees with their large, spreading habit and warm, smooth bark. But, they need annual pruning to keep them productive. Pruning serves several purposes:
- Pruning opens the canopy so light can reach all the leaves, ensuring more high-quality fruit.
- Pruning allows for better air circulation which can cut down on disease and insect problems.
- Pruning ensures that branches have space to grow so the tree grows strong.
Pruning an apple tree isn’t hard and once you understand the basics, you’ll become a pro. Read on to learn everything you need to know about pruning apple trees.
Pruning a Young Apple Tree
Chances are, you’ll plant one of two types of trees. Very young bare root trees are known as whips. These trees don’t have any branches yet. After planting, cut the tip off so the whip tree stands 36 to 45 inches high. The lowest branches on the tree will form just below this cut so think about how high you want those lowest branches to be when making the cut.
Many nurseries sell larger potted apple trees that already have branches. These trees are a good choice if you live in a dry, harsh climate where bare root plantings grow unreliably, but they cost a lot more than bare root trees. Prune these trees after planting only to remove limbs that are broken, narrow or too low on the tree.
Early next spring, it’s time to prune again. Look at the tree. You’ll want four or five main branches or scaffolds. These branches should be no lower than 24 inches from the ground—36 inches is even better. The branches should be evenly spaced at least 5 inches from each other. Basically, you’re looking for a branch arrangement similar to the spokes of a wheel. Remove all other branches, and especially those that are narrowly crotched, which means that they grow very near another branch.
Pruning Older Apple Trees
As the tree grows, you’ll select a second and third tier of scaffolds. Again, aim for a wheel or star shape with the limbs evenly distributed around the trunk of the tree. Remove all other limbs, especially those that grow vertically or that are close together.
Prune back the upper branches so they are shorter than the lower branches, creating a Christmas tree shape. This method allows light to reach the lower branches so they bear fruit and remain healthy.
Prune the central leader every year, as well. The central leader is the main branch running from the trunk of the tree straight up through the middle. All other branches grow from the central leader. When the central leader reaches the height you want it to be, start pruning. Dwarf trees typically grow 10 to 12 feet, while a standard tree is best kept at 14 to 16 feet high. Prune the central leader annually so it is slightly higher than the nearest branch. It should always be the highest branch on the tree.
When to Prune
In general, you’ll prune in late winter while the tree is dormant, before new leaves emerge. A dry, cool late winter day is ideal. There are several advantages to dormant pruning, the main one being that when the tree is bare of leaves, you’re better able to see its form and make wise pruning choices.
If you prune in the summer or early fall, you run several risks. Diseases and insect pests are active during these times and you’re likely to spread them through pruning. Additionally, pruning encourages new vegetative growth. If you prune in the summer or fall, the new growth won’t have time to harden off and will likely be damaged or killed by frost.
How to Make Cuts
First of all, you must have the right tools for the job. Use sharp pruning shears for branches less than a half-inch thick. Use a pruning saw for larger branches. Keep your tools sharp and clean. When you’re cutting back the tips of branches, cut to ¼ inch above an outward facing leaf bud. When cutting a branch back to the trunk, look for the collar, which is a small knob between the trunk and the branch. Cut through this area. Cutting flush with the trunk leaves the tree open to infection.
Considerations and Cautions
In addition to the annual late winter pruning, you might have to do additional pruning for the following situations:
- Remove water spouts that grow up or down vertically from branches. These vegetative growths serve no purpose, but divert energy from the tree.
- Remove dead or damaged branches.
- Remove branches killed by fire blight or other diseases.
- Remove the weakest of a pair of branches that grow across each other or rub against each other.
You can prune anytime to fix these problems, but be especially careful when pruning out limbs damaged by fire blight to avoid spreading the disease. Prune at least 8 to 10 inches below the obviously diseased portions. Dip your pruning tools in a solution of 1 cup chlorine bleach to 10 cups water in between cuts. Bleach corrodes pruning tools so rinse the tools carefully and oil them after use.
Other Apple Tree Pruning Resources:
Pruning the Orchard from Utah State University
Training and Pruning Apple Trees from the University of Wisconsin