How to Prune Apple Trees

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One would think a healthy, robust apple tree should contain lots and lots of branches and be loaded with as much fruit as possible. Right? Unfortunately, in this case, more isn’t better. Pruning your tree regularly – and quite severely – is better for its health and overall fruit production.

Before taking your saw and hacking away at the prized fruit-bearing species in your yard, it’s essential to know what you’re doing. The end goal is to create a well-shaped tree with an open, airy center that allows light and air to penetrate the canopy. Making proper cuts leads to less fruit overall but larger fruit.

This guide will help you learn how to cut apple trees the correct way.

Why Trimming is Important

As hard as it is sometimes to cut perfectly healthy growth off, your apple tree sees excellent benefits from pruning it regularly. While it reduces the number of fruit that forms, trimming helps increase sunlight and air circulation through the canopy’s interior, leading to bigger, healthier fruit overall.

While it may seem counterintuitive, less fruit that forms on a tree leads to more giant apples. Think about it like this…a tree has a designated amount of resources for a growing season. The water, sunlight, and nutrients are divided between the fruit on the branches. Therefore, fewer fruits are allocated more resources and can grow bigger.

Proper trimming techniques is important to having abundant harvests

Timing

The best time to prune your apple trees is in the late winter or early spring while it is still dormant from the cold winter weather and shorter day lengths. Buds are easier to see before active growth starts for the season, and any cuts have time to dry up before insect pests come out for the season.

You can prune in late July or August but do so carefully as a severe cutting weakens the tree. This weakening may significantly decrease fruit size or quality and increase the chance that weak branches snap when loaded with fruit.

Proper Equipment

You don’t need any specialized equipment for the project, but since a mature apple tree has different-sized branches, you will need a couple of different tools to cut small and large limbs. It’s also crucial that you have a sturdy, stable ladder to work from and appropriate safety gear like eye protection and gloves.

Pruners are a necessary tool in this process.
  • Pruners work well for small branches that are within your reach. They fit securely and comfortably in your hand and are available in different cutting mechanisms. Use bypass pruners for live branches and anvil pruners for dead limbs.
  • Loppers cut through small to medium diameter branches and allow you to reach a little bit further. In addition, their long handles give you more leverage to make thicker cuts.
  • A saw is a must-have for any branches larger than about 1-inch diameter. Use a fine-toothed curved blade for limbs up to 2.5 inches; cut branches over 3 inches with a coarse-toothed saw.

Make sure your tools are sharp as well as clean before you start. Sharp tools create cuts that slice through branches without leaving a rough, jagged edge. A straight cut helps the wound heal quicker. In addition, clean blades prevent the transfer of diseases that could have been picked up from other shrubs in your yard or garden plants.

Basics

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the specific steps, let’s talk a bit about the fundamentals of trimming. First, it’s important to understand the different shapes you can strive for and the various cuts you will be making. This job isn’t difficult, but you need to know these things and be aware of them to improve productivity.

Tree Shapes

When shaping a tree, you can opt for one of three basic silhouettes. Each has a slightly different aesthetic and comes with advantages and disadvantages specific to the shape. When it comes to forms, you can let it grow naturally, trim it into a particular shape, or espalier it to fit a small space.

  • Natural trees are pruned very little. Many people prefer this look, but it isn’t the best health-wise. It often leads to a large canopy and spread that is hard to reach the top of, and the fruits are smaller because of the number.
  • Cultivated trees are shaped so that they either have a single leader or multiple leaders. With a single leader, one trunk dominates and grows upward, with several limbs coming horizontally off of it. Numerous fruiting branches come off the horizontal limbs. Two or more dominant branches grow up and outward, each one considered a “leader.” These leaders then have smaller branches coming off of them.
  • Espaliered trees are pruned to grow flat along a wall or trellis. They look more vine-line but work well if you have limited yard space.
Espalier is a technique in cutting that shapes the branches in a very particular manner.
An example of an espaliered tree. Photo credits to Helen Lynn

Types of Cuts

The two basic cuts you’ll be making are thinning cuts and heading cuts. The difference between the two types is how they affect the number of branches and how much material is removed. Thinning cuts reduce the overall branch number, and heading cuts encourage new growth and increase the overall number of branches.

  • Thinning cuts remove a branch where it joins the limb. This kind of cut is used for removing dead branches or paring down excessive limbs. In general, these cuts increase the development of flower buds on other limbs.
  • Heading cuts shorten branches by removing part of a limb. This type of cut encourages several shoots to develop below the cut, creating a denser canopy.
Cutting at junction whenever possible is important

Steps In the Process

Unfortunately, pruning isn’t a quick job, and it involves many steps, especially if you have neglected to do this project for a while. The underlying logic remains the same, though — remove all dead and dying branches, create the basic shape you want, open up the interior canopy with detailed cuts, and then perform a basic trim.

  1. Start by stepping back and assessing the growing “situation.” Look at its overall size and shape, noting crowded spots, deceased branches, and limbs that are too long or too tall. This observation helps you formulate a plan on what needs to be cut and what cuts you should make.
  1. Using the best-suited cutting tool(s), remove any dead, damaged, or diseased branches. Cut off any new growth shooting up from the base of the trunk. Use thinning cuts if the entire branch is dead; use a heading cut just above a side branch if only the tip is deceased.
  1. Adjust the shape and overall size. Remove branches that are too tall or long with thinning cuts, taking them back to a supporting limb, or shorten them with heading cuts.
  1. Open up the center to allow sunlight and air to infiltrate the canopy. Use a thinning cut to remove branches growing back into the center or ones that are too close to one another. Branches should have 6 to 12-inches of air space.
  1. Finish off with a process known as heading back, encouraging branches to grow shorter and thicker. Heading back keeps your tree from growing up and out. Using thinning cuts, remove about one-quarter of the active growth from the previous year. Trim branches back to about one-quarter inch above an outward-facing bud.
Heading back will help you continue to develop big harvests

8 Tips for Pruning

  • Avoid getting heavy-handed. If you have neglected this project for a couple of years, spread it out over a couple of seasons to limit the stress on the tree at one time.
  • When choosing between two branches, always keep the healthier, more productive one with more buds or blossoms.
  • For safety reasons, remove large branches in small chunks or sections.
  • Consider the angle of branches when trimming. Keep those that grow upward at an angle; remove branches that grow straight up or down.
  • Do not prune until your tree begins fruiting. It can delay fruit-bearing since it encourages the growth of leafy shoots.
  • Clean up and remove all debris when you are finished, to prevent diseases or insect pest problems.
  • Always make cuts flush against a branch or at a slight angle, so water drains off the cut.
  • Never apply sealer after making cuts. This practice is now known to increase problems and impair healing.

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About the author: Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at TheGreenPinky. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years.

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