Apple Tree Pruning

As gardening expert Monty Don explains, pruning is vital to ‘maximise both the health of your fruit trees and their productivity’. Here we look at when (and how) to prune your apple trees.

Pruning apple trees is something of an art and a science and different gardeners will tell you different things about when and how you should go about it.

This article looks at some basic guidelines that most gardeners would agree on.

Choosing the best time to prune apple trees

In most cases, pruning apple trees should be carried out between leaf fall in autumn and bud burst in spring. It is best to start no earlier than November and to leave it no later than January.

There are some exceptions. Trees that have been pruned to specific shapes (e.g. espaliers) are pruned in the summer and this can also be a good way to tame an overly vigorous tree (summer pruning slows growth).

However, in most cases you will want to stick to winter pruning to increase the health of the tree and the number of apples produced in the summer.

How to prune your apple tree

Before starting apple tree pruning, take time to look at its overall shape.

A good blueprint for an apple tree is a cup or basket-shaped structure with four or five main upward-curving branches and a large open space in the centre. This maximises light and air circulation leading to healthy, productive trees.

As you prune, remember to step back every now and then to check you are following the blueprint.

Young trees are the easiest to shape as they are smaller and less developed. Older trees can become crowded with some branches hard to reach. If this is the case with your apple trees, you might want to contact Kneebone Trees to carry out the work for you.

Pruning your apple tree

If you do want to tackle the job yourself, make sure you are armed with a sharp pair of secateurs, loppers and a pruning saw. Sharp tools are not only easier and safer to use, they make clean cuts which are more resistant to disease.

Start by removing branches that are clearly dead, dying or severely damaged. Don’t cut the wood flush to the branch or trunk as this can slow the healing process. On the other hand, leaving a stump can encourage pests and disease. Leave just a small protrusion.

Next, look for branches that are crossing over one another. These will rub together over time and cause wounds, leading to diseases. You should remove the least useful of the two branches, again remembering the overall shape you want your tree to be.

Long, thin branches growing straight up from the centre of the trunk should also be removed as these will end up blocking light and air circulation without producing much fruit.

You can then look to reduce crowding by removing branches which are growing too close together at their base. Ideally, these should be six inches (15cm) apart.

Apples are produced on fruiting branches that grow out sideways (laterally) from your main branches. Aim to prune no more than a quarter of your branches at any one time as over pruning will reduce productivity.

Reduce the length of the branch by around a third, making your cut next to a side branch or shoot. Angle the cut to ensure water drains away from the wound.

Problems you might spot

While undertaking apple tree pruning you may come across signs of disease and damage.

Cankers and lichens can weaken an apple tree’s ability to produce fruit. These should be removed or cut out where possible.

Cracks on the bark can be caused by frost. While this is more of a problem in the spring, you might want to consider covering your apple trees with horticultural fleece, shade netting or even simple bed sheets to minimise damage.

It’s also important to understand that apple trees can be subject to biennial bearing, producing lots of apples one year and hardly any the next. This is natural and not a sign that your apple tree is unhealthy.

When to call in the experts

Correctly undertaking apple tree pruning takes clean, sharp tools; careful planning, effective technique and patience (it can take years to prune trees with many branches).

If you lack the time, interest or confidence to prune your apple trees correctly, consider hiring a tree specialist. You can then sit back in the summer and enjoy a bountiful crop of delicious apples while showing off your healthy, well-shaped tree to the neighbours.

Did you know that Kneebone Trees provide a specialist tree pruning service based on the European Tree Pruning Guide? Call us today to book or find out more.

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