Guide to Pruning Apple Trees

Our guide takes the confusion out of pruning apple trees by showing you when and how to prune apples of all types. Get tips on pruning newly planted young and mature trees. Renewal or remedial pruning for old or overgrown trees.

Apple Orchard in Bloom, Chelan County, WA
Vase Pruned Dwarf Apple Trees
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It is true that most apple trees will continue to bear without yearly pruning, but the tree's canopy will become too dense.  Excess branches clogging the center of the tree will impede the movement of light and air through the crown.

Some of these branches will begin to cross one another and rub, causing disease-and-insect-attracting wounds.

The crop will be borne at a greater height with each passing season of neglect.

Pruning apple trees each year will keep them more compact and attractive, open them to light and air, and keep them producing closer to the ground where the fruit will be easier to harvest.

Spring Pruning of Apple Trees

Apple tree blossoms.

Apple tree blossoms form on crooked spurs near the branch tips.

Apple Tree Pruning Old Wives' Tale:

The idea that pruning apple trees in summer will cause them to come into bearing at an earlier age is a myth.

It is best to prune the trees early in spring, while they are still dormant and before the buds begin to swell.

Apple trees fruit on spurs which form near the tips of their branches.  More productive spur-type apples form these short, thin, fruit-bearing stems all along the length of each branch.

As you prune apple trees, be careful of damaging the spurs of branches you are not removing as doing so will reduce the size of future crops.

Apple trees may also be pruned in late fall or winter except in zones where temps fall below -25 degrees F.

How to Prune Apple Trees

Apple tree spurs.

Apple Tree Spurs

Standard or full-sized apple trees are most often trained into a vase shape.  Semi-dwarf and dwarf apple trees can also be pruned to form a vase or to a modified central leader.

Vase or Open-head
Apple Tree Pruning

Grandmas Apple Tree Oil Painting By Ginette
Open-head Apple Tree
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This method opens the crown to light and air and causes the tree to grow lower and wider than it otherwise would.

  1. Cut the main stem (trunk) of newly planted standard tree off at a height of 30-36 inches from the ground (24 inches for dwarf or semi-dwarf trees).  The scaffold branches will grow this year.
  2. The following spring, before the buds begin to swell, select 3 or 4 scaffold branches.  Choose branches that are evenly spaced around the trunk and are growing at a wide angle from it.  (Narrow angles make for weak crotches.)
  3. Remove all other scaffold branches except for these.  Shorten the selected branches by one third of their length to encourage more stems to grow along them.  These new stems will become the tree's secondary scaffold branches.  The fruiting spurs will form on the laterals of these secondary scaffolds.
  4. The following spring, cut all new growth (that which formed during the previous growing season) back by one third of its length.  Thin the canopy by removing any branches growing into the center of the tree.
  5. Always make your cuts to an outward facing bud to keep new growth growing toward the outside of the tree.

Pruning Apple Trees
Modified Central Leader

Apple Trees in Bloom, Normandie (Normandy), France
Central Leader Apple Trees
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Semi-dwarf and dwarf apples pruned to this shape will be stronger and bear sooner than those pruned to an open head.  Before you decide to use this pruning method, you should know that dwarf apple trees trained this way will be taller at maturity than would the same tree if pruned to an open-head.

  1. Cut all branches of the newly planted tree, including the central leader, back by 8 inches.
  2. Make all your cuts to an outward-facing bud.
  3. Repeat this process in the second and third springs.
  4. All further pruning should be corrective.  Just remove dead, broken, crossing, or poorly placed stems.

How to Espalier Apple Trees

Palmette espalier apple tree on a wall.

Espalier is the art of training a plant to grow flat against a support--usually a wall or fence.  Espaliering both saves space and enhances the beauty of the garden.  Espaliering apple trees can make fruit production possible in a very narrow space.

Renewal Pruning an Old Apple Tree

An overgrown apple tree in need of remedial pruning.

An overgrown apple tree in need of remedial pruning. 

Only one major branch (the one growing into the center of the crown) needs to come off this old apple tree. 

The white line shows you where to make the cut.

If the tree is very overgrown, do not try to correct this in one season.  Decide how much wood needs to be removed and then remove a third of this each spring for three years.

Pruning an apple tree too drastically in one season will provoke the growth of too many water sprouts (stems that grow straight up from the branches).

Heavy pruning can also cause a tree to push top growth at the expense of flowering.

Remedial Pruning Apple Trees:

  • Take out any dead, broken or crossing branches.
  • Shorten the top branches by one third of their height.
  • Remove branches that impede the flow of light and air into the tree's center.

Other Apple Tree Care Pages

Care of Apple Trees

When and How to Feed Apple Trees

How to Graft Apple Trees

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