How to Winter Prune Apple Trees

, written by gb flag

A well-maintained Bramley apple tree covered in blossom

Some gardeners get the raving heebie-jeebies when faced with a pruning task. If you’re a nervous pruner, apple trees are a good place to start – they’re tough plants and very forgiving. But to get the best from them it pays to learn a few simple techniques so you know when, what and how to prune effectively.

So whether you’ve got just one or two apple trees to prune or a whole orchardful, arm yourself with secateurs, loppers and a pruning saw, follow the guidelines below, and fear no more.

When to Prune Apple Trees

Summer pruning of apples helps encourage fruiting and flowering, but winter pruning is essential for controlling their shape and vigour.

Winter pruning commences, unsurprisingly, during the colder months. Don’t be tempted to prune too soon in the belief that doing so in warmer weather will be better for the tree. Pruning apple trees in the autumn can encourage them to send out fresh new shoots that aren’t tough enough to withstand cold weather. Wait until the leaves have fallen off instead. This means that they’re fully dormant and won’t grow any more until the weather warms up.

Pruning apple trees in frosty weather does no harm whatsoever. As long as they’re dormant they won’t mind a little surgery, no matter how low the temperature drops.

Cut out the 3Ds – dead, dying and diseased wood

How to Prune an Apple Tree

The main aim when pruning is to produce a healthy tree. Aim for a goblet shape with plenty of airflow to the centre of the tree. This helps combat potential issues with fungal diseases and lets in light to ripen the fruits.

There are five main points you need to keep in mind while pruning:

1. Remove the 3Ds.

That’s diseased, dying and dead wood. If the wood shows obvious signs of any malady, amputate it. Make the cut into healthy wood to ensure the problem doesn’t spread.

2. Remove crossing branches.

If two branches cross, they will rub away the bark and potentially provide an entry point for disease. They will also make it harder air to circulate, and make harvesting more awkward.

Cut out crossing branches to prevent them from rubbing, which can provide access points for disease

Try to imagine how the branches will look when weighed down with leaves and fruits; will they rub against a branch below? If you spot two branches that are likely to cross in the future, prune one of them out now. It’s an easier job to make these cuts while they’re still small.

Think of any inward-pointing branches as crossing ones, and remove.

3. Make the biggest cuts first.

You can spend an awful lot of time removing a small dead twig here and a spindly inward-turning shoot there, but when thinking about removing a small branch it’s a good idea to trace it back to the trunk to see if there are other problems first. You might find that it crosses with another further back and that it therefore should be cut out closer to the trunk.

4. Make clean cuts.

Use clean, sharp pruning tools. If you’re doing a lot of pruning you may need to stop occasionally and re-sharpen the blade. High-quality tools will retain an edge for much longer.

Prune flush with the branch collar, but not into it.

Always cut just above a healthy outward-facing bud. This is where next year’s growth will spring from. If you need to remove a whole branch, make your cut close to – but not into – the main branch or trunk. Look for the raised ‘collar’ where the branch joins and cut flush with that.

When using a saw to prune larger branches, first make a shallow undercut before sawing through from above. That way if the branch breaks off as you’re cutting it, it won’t rip off a long section of the tree’s protective bark.

Prune very thick or long limbs in sections. It may seem like more work but it’s much safer, and again it’s less likely to cause damage if the branch breaks under its own weight as you’re cutting.

5. Take your time.

Keep stepping back and checking the overall shape of the canopy to make sure it looks balanced before making your next cut. A little change in perspective can make a big difference!

Remove a quarter to a third of new growth on young apple trees to thicken the branches

Pruning New Apple Trees

Young apple trees benefit from ‘heading back’, which helps keep branches compact and sturdy enough to take the weight of lots of fruit. Heading cuts should remove a quarter to a third of the previous season’s growth.

It’s also worth reducing the height of the ‘leader’, or main stem, by the same amount. This redirects the tree’s energy into producing new growth lower down, which makes subsequent pruning and harvesting easier.

When lots of branches become very congested, it’s time to think about renovation pruning

Renovation Pruning Neglected Apple Trees

If your apple tree is old and neglected, it’s likely to have developed a scruff of spindly, congested branches and some larger crossing ones too. These will need to be thinned out. This can mean a really big pruning job, but it’s important to pace yourself and not try to do it all at once. Spread it out over two or three winters. Cutting out too much in one go can cause rapid regrowth in spring. This may sound great, but what tends to happen is that the growth is vertical, lush, leafy – and non-fruit-bearing. So take your time! Your arm muscles will thank you too.

Once you’ve finished pruning, step back again and take a final look. The tree should look balanced, without areas of congested growth or any excessively long shoots. There – that wasn’t too scary, was it?

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Show Comments


"Really helpful, thank you!"
Jane on Friday 1 December 2017
"You're very welcome, glad you found it useful!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 1 December 2017
"It seems all videos tell me what to prune out... but nobody tells me what NOT to remove. I suspect that last spring I removed twigs that were meant to produce fruit.When I prune in the spring all the branches look the same to me. How do I recognize branches or shoots (big and small) that will develop flower buds or fruit buds or leaf buds? How many of each of those should I leave on the tree?"
Ted on Saturday 5 May 2018
"Hi Ted. You can usually tell the buds that will become flowers and then fruits as they're fatter and larger than the ones that will produce leaves. If you know whether the apple variety you're growing is tip-bearing or spur-bearing, this can also help you guess where fruits are likely to be borne. Tip-bearers produce most fruits at the end of their shoots, while spur-bearers (which are much more common) produce them on short shoots in older wood. Just to confuse things, some varieties do both! Prudence in pruning is always wise - only remove what you absolutely need to for the health and continued vigour of the tree. Some years you may find you don't even need to do any pruning at all."
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 9 May 2018
"Thank you. Your answer addresses my question very nicely and I'm learning some new things. On the other hand, I'm told to prune or trim in early spring before buds appear do I just leave all shoots (or spurs) on except the "waterspouts" that go straight up?"
Ted on Thursday 10 May 2018
"Hi Ted. Sorry for the delay in replying! A light touch when pruning is sensible. Heavy pruning often results in lots of those watershoots you mentioned being produced. For annual maintenance pruning you will only need to prune out the 3Ds (dead, dying and diseased wood), plus any branches that are crossing and likely to rub away at each other. Don't prune any healthy-looking branch that isn't causing a specific problem."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 22 May 2018
"Good to read an Aussie post on pruning. Last year my two trees produced virtually no fruit. Think I've discovered ehy? Probably sprayed too late when tips were showing green. Spray caused many apples not to grow. Used lime sulphur but it warns one now. Would have loved dome images. Great post"
Elle on Sunday 29 July 2018
"Hi Elle, glad you enjoyed the article. Sorry to disappoint you though - I'm actually a UK gardener! The principles should be broadly the same however. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 1 August 2018
"I inherited an old apple tree when I moved into my house. I pruned it fairly hard the first year to tidy it up, but since then I prune it in spring, only removing any dead or diseased wood or crossing branches. There are always dozens of watershoots which I also remove. Is there something I'm doing wrong to cause so many of these watershoots? Should I be doing my pruning now and leaving it in spring? If so, do I still remove the watershoots?"
Laura on Friday 27 December 2019
"Hi Laura Prune hard now, this time of the year is far better for the tree and will control shoots come Spring."
Jo on Monday 30 December 2019
"Hello. I have only 4 apple trees , about 5years old. I believe they have coral spot fungus. If I was to cut all the spotted areas away, I would lose all or at least 50% of the branches. They are at least 15 feet apart Can they be saved?"
Debbie on Wednesday 20 May 2020
"Hi Debbie. If you're sure it's coral spot, that's usually a sign that the plant is in poor health. It seems to grow on wood that is already dead or dying, so there's little to lose by pruning it all out. Do it on a dry day, as there is less risk of spreading the infection further, and burn or otherwise dispose of the prunings - don't compost or shred them. This doesn't resolve the question of why the fungus has colonised them however, so I'd look carefully at your growing conditions and make sure they have everything they need and are not waterlogged or otherwise stressed. Give them a good mulch of compost to help them get over both the disease and the radical pruning that it sounds like they need. Good luck!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 23 May 2020
"Brilliant. Not a word wasted. Sagest advice ever. I can't wait to grow some Cox's Orange Pippins here in the Melbourne area. Thank you so much, AMH."
BJ on Sunday 24 May 2020
"I'm glad you found it useful BJ!"
Ann Marie on Tuesday 26 May 2020
"Thanks - I was anxious about pruning in January, thinking maybe I should wait until February, but now I think it's OK. The temperature is running generally in the teens, 20s, and 30s. I'm in Vermont."
Steve on Wednesday 13 January 2021
"Apple trees are pretty tough Steve. Ideally, prune when temperatures are above freezing, but they will usually recover from any pruning cuts. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 20 January 2021
"Hi, I planted one semi-dwarf and one regular size potted apple tree last autumn. They were leafed and healthy. One year later they are still leafy but have no branches. Should I shorten (prune) them to encourage branching? "
Joanna Moran on Sunday 12 September 2021
"Joanna, you could try making some heading cuts on existing branches this winter, as described in the article above, and trim the very tip off the tallest central shoot (the 'leader'), cutting just above a bud. Give the trees a good mulch of compost too, and feed them with a balanced liquid feed during the growing season to give them the nutrients they need to produce good strong growth. Don't worry too much though - sometimes newly planted trees need time to develop a good root system first, and then the following year they have the energy for producing new shoots above ground."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 21 September 2021

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