How and when to prune apple trees for bumper crops

Regularly pruning your apple trees will improve your crops for next year.

Apple trees are amazing. Not only do they supply you with beautiful blossom in spring and healthy fruit in autumn, they are suitable for all shapes and sizes of gardens. You can grow them in containers in even the tiniest of gardens.

So, whether you have a balcony, a courtyard or even a large orchard, we can all grow apple trees. There are more than 2,500 exciting varieties to choose from, so by growing your own you don’t need to restrict yourself to the handful of types found on a supermarket shelf.

To ensure you have a bumper crop of apples each year, it is important to regularly prune them. Knowing when and how to prune an apple tree should ensure it stays healthy and produces regular crops the following year.

I learnt how to prune apple trees while working in the fruit department at the RHS Wisley, many years ago. And I must admit, pruning apple trees is one of my favourite jobs in the garden. There’s something magical about being in a frosty orchard in winter, armed with a pair of secateurs, a ladder and a thermos of hot soup.

So sharpen your secateurs, as we share our tips on when and how to prune apple trees.

Apple trees can be pruned twice a year. Once in winter and a lighter prune in late summerCredit: Shutterstock / photosbypatrick
Apples can be pruned twice a year. Once in winter, and then a lighter prune in late summer.

Why is it necessary to prune?

Pruning is important for several reasons

When you prune your apple tree, it encourages new growth. This enables the tree to constantly renew itself with healthy, young shoots. These shoots will hopefully go on to form fruit buds and fruit spurs and then produce apples. Much older shoots are less productive.

Pruning also helps to reduce over-congested canopies, which cast shade on the branches below and therefore reduces yields. Apple trees need plenty of sunlight for them to produce fruit.

Air circulation is important to prevent the build-up of pests and fungal diseases within the canopy. By pruning your apple tree and maintaining an open centre, it should help to keep it healthy and productive.

Pruning is an opportunity to remove dead and diseased branches.

Some apple trees may need pruning if they have outgrown their space.


When should we prune apple trees?

Our top pruning tips for a happy, healthy tree

1. Aim to train your tree into a goblet shape

The easiest shape to prune the tree into is a bush with an open centre,. similar to the shape of a goblet. This applies to trees growing in containers as well as ones planted in the ground.

The shape starts with a single trunk up to about waist height. From here there should be a framework of between four and six main branches radiating outwards, equally spaced, leaving the centre clear.

NB: This method of pruning does not apply to espaliers, cordons, step-overs, fans and other shapes of trees. It just refers to free-standing trees either planted in the ground or growing in containers.

To maintain this goblet shape, you may need to prune some of the additional branches growing into the centre of the tree.

Always prune close to another branch further down to allow it to take up the vigour. Never just leave a stub, as this can cause dieback in the branch.

2. Remove dead, damaged and diseased branches first

Glyn Smith is the head gardener for National Trust’s Erddig inWales and an apple expert. Among the plants he cares for are more than 200 varieties of apples.

Smith says: “The first thing to look for in winter when pruning are the three Ds. That is the dead, damaged and diseased branches. These are the first things that should be removed.

“Next, you want to look for branches that are growing across each other.

“One of the two crossing branches should be removed to give the remaining one more space. This will ensure they don’t rub against each other, which can damage the bark.

“This congestion can also mean they will be competing for sunlight, leaving one of them in the shade.”

3. Remove the suckers

When pruning an established tree, you will find that it often produces lots of wispy growth coming directly from the trunk of the tree. These are sometimes called water shoots/suckers – or, to give them their posh name, “epicormic growth”.

These should be removed with secateurs, as they will take energy from the tree that would be better if diverted into the branches you wish to retain and the fruit later in the year.

If you have lots of water shoots, only remove a third of them, otherwise the tree will simply react and produce even more in the following year.

4. Leave the tips of the main framework branches

Leave the tips (often called “leaders”) of the main four to six branches that create the framework of your goblet shape. That’s because pruning them can stimulate other branches to grow below where you cut, which causes more congestion.

The only time you might want to cut the tips of the main framework branches is when the tree is cutting too high for you and has outgrown its space. In which case, cut back to a lower branch that can replace the leader.


5. Prune some of the lateral branches

There will be lots of other smaller, lateral branches growing from the main (four-to-six) framework branches. These smaller branches need to be equally spaced out. Remove some of them, so that there is a hand’s- width distance between all the remaining ones.

Also remove some of the branches if they are shading those below it. This should allow the remaining branches to receive as much sunlight as possible, which is necessary for fruit production.

Don't prune too many branches

Smith says: “Never prune more than 25% of the tree. That can lead to excessive epicormic growth, also known as water shoots, as the tree reacts to the pruning.”

I was taught when training at RHS Wisley that after an apple tree has been pruned, there should be enough space between the individual branches for a robin to fly through the centre of it without its wings touching anything.

So that should give you an idea of how much “air space” should be given between each branch when pruning.

6. Do a second prune in late summer

Smith recommends pruning apple trees twice a year: “Although the main season for pruning apple trees is winter, I like to prune trees in late summer too. This summer pruning helps to improve the cropping for the following year.”

The summer pruning of apple trees is very light. It simply involves cutting back the new growth made during spring and summer by half their length.

The removal of some of this new growth with secateurs allows more light into the canopy, which encourages the tree to produce more fruit bud next summer.

“Don’t do your summer prune too early,” warns Smith. “Otherwise the tree will make more extension growth before it goes into winter. You need to wait until the tree has stopped growing, and then prune it. For many of us, that is around the end of July, but will vary depending on where you live.”

The more serious pruning of apple trees and the removal of larger branches is done in winter when dormant.

7. What to do with your prunings

I spend a bit of extra time each year cutting up my prunings into smaller pieces. The chunkier sections I place in my shed to season for a year. I then burn them on a woodburning stove the following winter.

Applewood logs have a beautiful, perfumed scent when they burn.

I then place the ash back around the base of the apple trees in spring.

The wood ash is high in potassium (potash), which improves flowering at blossom time, as well as the colour and flavour of the fruit in autumn. It’s a wonderful way of recycling your apple prunings and giving back to nature.

The smaller sections (pencil thickness) I bag up into 25cm (9.8in) lengths and use as kindling on my barbecue in the summer. When the twigs are dry, they are brilliant for getting fires going. Their subtle fruit perfume gives the food a lovely smoky apple flavour – perfect for cooking sausages.

Enjoy apple harvest celebrations this October

Smith will be involved with the National Trust apple celebrations at Erddig in Wales this October. He feels it is important to encourage people to plant apple trees.

Smith says: “If possible, people should try and plant apple trees in their garden. People get to taste apples from their own tree, rather than from the handful of apples available from the supermarket. There is nothing better than picking an apple off a tree and tasting it.”

“By growing your own apple tree, you also reduce food miles. So much fruit is now imported.”

Erddig’s annual apple harvest celebration takes place across two weekends in October. Enjoy the historic apple display, apple sales, longest peel competition, apple taster sessions, children’s trail, craft sessions and more.

Lots of other National Trust properties have apple day events. Check their website for your nearest National Trust property to see if they have apple day events.

Simon Akeroyd

Written by Simon Akeroyd he/him


Simon Akeroyd was previously a Head Gardener for the National Trust and RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) and has written more than 30 gardening books during his career. He also writes regularly for national newspapers as well as garden and lifestyle magazines.

Simon has presented and been featured in TV gardening programmes and worked as a horticultural researcher, writer and producer for the BBC.

During his career, he’s also managed many gardens including RHS Wisley, RHS Harlow Carr,  Sheffield Park, Polesden Lacey, Coleton Fishacre, Compton Castle and Agatha Christie’s Greenway.

He believes passionately in encouraging everyone to grow plants. Not only do plants make our surrounding space look more beautiful, but they help the wildlife and the planet too.

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