How to Prune Apple Trees

February 21, 2020

How to Prune Apple Trees?

Apple Tree Care Basics

Whether or not the apple trees grow properly, look good, and produce ripe, flavorful apples in the fall depends on the attention you give them. Pruning can be done all year round. You can even start in February when it’s cold.


You’ll need the following tools for pruning apple trees:

  • Main tools
    1. Pole pruner: this is basically the same as a pair of hand pruners, but with a long extendable pole, and a cord to actuate the cutter.s
    2. Hand saw: the same as what you’d see a carpenter use, but often with a inside curved blade, and is suitable for lengthier branches
  • Hand pruner: suitable for finer work involving young apple saplings
  • Lopper: some experts say that it can destroy the fibre of the main wood, so use with care and on smaller branches.
  • Chainsaw: if all else fails, get a chainsaw. It is a good option for cutting apple tree limbs that are very large and dead or diseased. This opens the largest wounds in a tree, so it’s really just a last resort.


Apple Tree Varieties

Different varieties have different growth habits and require different pruning techniques. Some varieties are more vigorous and hence more difficult to prune.


Some people are of the view that when growing apple trees, they need to amend the soil. While the soil is important, a more pertinent consideration is getting the sunlight uniformly to every part of the tree.

Branch Distribution

When buying apple tree saplings, people tend to ask how tall it’s going to be, as if that’s the main factor to look at when purchasing the tree.

It isn’t.

Growing apple trees is more about achieving the right distribution of branches.

You should aim for the bottom branches of young saplings to grow outwards. In order to achieve that, you need to shorten the top.

Shortening the top forces the side branches to grow out.

Crotch Angle

The other critical thing to look for is the crotch angle or the angle between the main stem and the branches. You want a branch to come out at the best angle possible. Anywhere from a 60- to 90-degree angle is acceptable.

A narrower crotch means a weak spot in the tree. If you get fruit on these branches, they’ll bend over and break off. Same thing for branches that extend horizontally.

On a dwarf tree, you might only want one main stem, as there isn’t often a lot of room for branches.

Don’t Overprune a Young Tree

Don’t over prune a young tree. Every time you prune, it promotes vegetative growth, but too much pruning will only delay fruiting.

On a dwarf tree, you should expect fruit 2-3 years after you plant the tree. Some varieties of apple trees shed fruit in the first year.

Natural Branch Distribution

Ideally, you want a good, uniform distribution of branches. There are parts of a tree where you may want to have a branch or two, but you can’t control the natural direction in which the tree sheds its branches. You can, however, splice new branches from other varieties of apples onto the tree in the spots where branches are scarce.

What to Prune

You should prune branches that are being shaded too much by the other branches. Also, prune branches that may grow into an adjacent tree. Branches growing inward also have to go. Weak and deformed branches are also a liability. If there’s a double-top, take out the weaker ones.

Control the Crotch Angle Using A Plain Clothespin

If you want to control the crotch angles, use some plain clothespins. When the branch is about 4 inches long, apply the clothespin between the crotch to hold the branches in place. Remove the clothespin in the next season. Some people use plastic pins, but they tend to degrade in the sun.

Pruning Technique

Apples could be pruned around a central leader stem branch, open centre, or modified. Any three of these techniques are acceptable.

Nitrogen Use

If you want growth in the first year, you can consider adding some nitrogen. That will stimulate growth but may also affect the formation of fruit spurs. In the second year, you can stimulate fruit spur growth by not adding any nitrogen.

It is always recommended to not fertilize at all, if very little, and with a balanced compost tea, or similar. Another more adventurous idea is to plant some kind of nitrogen-fixing plant near the apple tree, around the outside of the dripline. All legumes are nitrogen-fixing.

Cuts To Avoid

There are 2 kinds of cuts to avoid while pruning:

Stub Cut: This is the kind of cut that leaves a 2-inch or so stub. These become an incubator for disease organisms, and can invite serious decay.

Flush Cut: If you notice it, there’s a ridge around the base of every branch, called a “branch-collar”. Damaging these in any way can cause a myriad of problems, including cracks, discolouration, and most importantly, entry of disease.

Lower Tier of Branches

The objective is to have a lower tier of branches all the way around with a nice, uniform distribution capable of receiving optimal sunlight. Those are the permanent branches.

Renewal Branches

Everything above that lower tier are renewal branches. You want sunlight to penetrate down to the lower branches. Those fruits will be the easiest to pick.

Take any branch off that’s shading the lower branches.

Think in terms of sunlight.

If you don’t want regrowth on any renewal branch, flush cut it. Else, leave a stub so it can bear fruit over the next few seasons before you stub cut it again.

Neighbours Tree is an Edmonton-based tree service company led by a certified team of arborists and fellers. Some services we offer include tree pruning, tree removal, stump grinding, tree planting and deep root fertilization. Contact us today with your tree care needs.

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