- 9th April 2021 -

When to Prune Apple Trees

Trees are complex organisms and respond to pruning differently depending on their age, variety, the time of year and other factors. Choosing the right time to prune your Apple is critical if you want to maximise fruit yield and minimise work.

Pruning your apple tree correctly will maximise the air and light available for healthy growth and productive fruiting. Incorrect pruning (including pruning that is carried out too early or late in the season) can lead to a mass of unhelpful regrowth, a poor crop of apples and other problems.

When should you prune your apple tree?

As a rule of thumb, you want to do most of your pruning between late autumn and early spring, while the tree is in its dormant stage. 

During the spring and summer, the tree will need its energy for fruit production. Too much pruning at this time will divert this energy into regrowth leading to a poor crop.

After its leaves have fallen in autumn, the tree’s metabolism slows as it prepares to survive the winter. Pruning during dormancy will reduce the regrowth that can get out of control at other times of the year. It is better to prune later in the dormancy period (i.e. early spring before bud burst) to minimise the chance of wounds being infected by disease.

An exception to this rule is pruning dead, dying or diseased branches (the so-called ‘three Ds’). These should ideally be removed as soon as possible to minimise the risk of disease spreading to healthy branches.

How to prune your apple tree: thinning and heading cuts

Pruning can seem complicated but the basics are easy to pick up. Once you have mastered this, you can get hold of specialist advice on the specific variety of apple tree you are pruning.

Note: The advice below applies to spur-bearing apple trees where the apples are produced on short stems (spurs) coming out of the side of the main branches. Tip-bearing and partial tip-bearing apple trees should not be too heavily pruned as this will reduce your crop.

There are two main types of pruning cuts and these have different purposes. Thinning cuts involve removing entire branches back to its source (a larger branch or the trunk). They are the most common type of cut used in older trees as they reduce crowding.

Heading cuts can be made anywhere along the length of a stem. By removing the branch’s terminal bud, which controls the pace of growth, heading cuts stimulate vigorous growth in the buds nearest to the cut. 

Heading cuts should be used sparingly in older apple trees as they can cause crowding. Use them mainly with young trees  to determine the shape of the tree.

The three cut method

When removing large branches, it is important to protect the origin of the branch (i.e. the trunk or a larger branch). You can do this by using the three cut method.

First, make an upwards cut into the branch, around six inches from the origin, about a third of the way through. Next, move to the right of the initial cut and cut all the way through the branch from the top. In this way, you are not tearing the base of the branch.

Finally, cut down through the remaining stump, leaving about 3 or 4 cm protruding. The swollen area at the base of the branch (the collar) will then grow over the wound to heal it.

Organising your pruning

The very first step of pruning is making sure you are equipped for the job. Your loppers and pruners should be sterilised and sharpened before use and all safety precautions taken (e.g. gloves, secure ladders, etc.) For large trees, you may also need a pruning saw for removing big branches.

Start off by removing the three D’s. Dead branches can be recognised because they will snap easily while diseased branches will normally be a different colour to healthy ones.

You can also remove any suckers and watersprouts. These are most common in mature trees which have been heavily pruned and look like very thin branches growing up from the base of the tree (suckers) or upper branches (watersprouts).

For young trees, you can now make some heading cuts to shape the growth of the tree. You will need to make the cut just above a bud facing in the direction you want a new branch to grow.  To maximise light and air circulation, you can aim for a goblet shape by pruning back to outward facing buds. A structure of three to five main branches is ideal. Make sure they are evenly spaced..

For trees of all ages, remove branches that are growing downwards or vertically (apart from the main ‘leader’). Branches close to the ground (four feet or less on an older tree) will never produce fruit so can be pruned.

Finally, take a look at the spurs on spur-bearing varieties. If you have lots of spurs with more than four or five buds, you may end up with lots of small apples. By thinning these out, your yield will be smaller but you can look forward to larger apples.


Do you need help with safely pruning a large apple tree? Would you like an expert to show you how to prune correctly? Call us about our Tree Services or fill out our contact form for a quote.