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 How to Prune Apple Trees

 By Paul Curran

In this article you will find out how to prune apple trees. (One
of several articles from the author on how to prune fruit trees).
Pruning apple trees can be done several ways. This operation
often causes concern, and considerable variation in ideas exists
on the subject, generally. Concerning bush trees in the small
garden, the following points should be borne in mind. First, one
may ask, "what happens if no pruning is done at all"?

The answer is that too much growth may be made, the branches will
be too congested and, although fruit will be borne, it may be
smaller than it should be. Then, the stage may be reached when
growth will slow down, and too many fruit buds will be formed in
relation to the new growth. In short, one has to aim at a balance
between wood (shoot) growth and fruit bud formation.

If very hard pruning is done after the early years more wood
growth than is needed may be produced and fruiting will be
delayed. One method of how to prune apple trees to avoid, is the
cutting off of all the new growth at the same level each year,
i.e. beheading a tree at a given height. This only encourages
more wood growth, and gives the tree little chance to make fruit
spurs and fruit buds.

How to prune apple trees - Pruning of a young tree

To start with the pruning of a young tree, after planting, this
may have 3 or 4 main branches. The 1-year-old wood (the newest
growth) should be cut back half way, to an outward-facing bud.
Strong shoots may be cut back less hard, and weaker branches
rather harder. Next autumn, or winter, the new growth that arises
from this cutting back is treated similarly. Keep only the best
two or three shoots that arise from the original branches
(leaders) and cut out any shoots that cross the centre of the
bush, the aim being to encourage an outward framework of
branches, i.e. cup shaped.

The main shoots should be treated similarly for the following
years. Meanwhile, the main branches will be furnished with side
shoots (laterals) and all these that grow out from the tree
(outward that is) can be left their full length. Those growing
inwards should be cut back each winter to two buds from the base.

In connection with how to prune apple trees, in the early years,
the question of whether fruit formed in the first season after
planting should be left or removed, is often raised. If the tree
is making good growth. I suggest that a few fruits be retained.
To leave many may cause a check in growth.

How to prune apple trees - Regulated System

A logical stage forward from no pruning is the method known as
the Regulated System. This can be followed with standard trees,
half standards and strong-growing bush trees, i.e. those on
vigorous root stocks. Briefly, with established trees this
entails only the removal of crowded or crossing branches,
thinning out unwanted shoots, and taking out any dead wood. With
this method on how to prune apple trees, sizeable branches have
sometimes to be removed, and a pruning saw, with a curved blade
is best used for this purpose. The cut surfaces of sawn off
branches should be painted over with white lead paint to prevent
entry of disease spores.

How to prune apple trees - Spur Pruning

For established bush trees on the less-vigorous root stocks, the
harder method of pruning, called Spur Pruning, is sometimes
followed. This, however, is best modified to give a method called
the Established Spur System. This is designed to encourage a
system of fruiting spurs, close to the main branch-work, and is
useful for weaker growing varieties in particular. New lateral
growth from the branch frame work is pruned back to two or three
buds from the branch. New growth will arise from these buds,
which will in turn be pruned similarly the following year.

A spur system of fruit buds will be formed at the base of these
shoots which will bear the fruit. These spur systems will need to
be thinned out, as they begin to crowd the tree, in order to
encourage new growth and reduce the amount of blossom. Some
laterals growing towards the outside of the tree may be left to
extend naturally; these will form fruit buds and bear the
earliest fruit while the spur system is being formed.

Some varieties bear fruit on the ends of the shoots, tip bearers,
as they are called, and it is essential to make provision for a
certain amount of unpruned wood. These unpruned laterals may be
cut back to fruit buds or spurs, when their length demands. In
short this method on how to prune apple trees aims at a
compromise between hard spur pruning and leaving some laterals

How to prune apple trees - Renewal System

From spur pruning, a further method has been evolved, called the
Renewal System. This method which may at first appear complicated
to the amateur is, in fact, a successful way of controlling wood
and fruit formation to the best advantage. It consists of
shortening a proportion of the annual growth in order to produce
more wood, leaving some unpruned to form fruit buds. These should
be well spaced out over the branch length, to ensure that fruit
will not be crowded. The number of laterals, or new growths, to
be shortened, depends on the variety and growth of the apple

A strongly growing tree can carry more fruit, therefore perhaps
half of the laterals could be shortened and half left untouched.
On a weaker tree, which tends to form fruit buds at the expense
of new growth, 2 in 3 of the laterals may be pruned. In this
system the individual characteristics of the tree need to be
catered for; there is no hard and fast rule. Laterals which are
pruned to 2 or 3 ins. in length, will form new wood, which is
treated as before, either to be left, or shortened in due course.

How to prune apple trees - Cordon Trees

Basically, these are Spur Pruned; that is, all the young growth,
each year, is shortened back to within 2 or 3 buds of the base,
where fruit buds will form and a spur system is built up. Space,
or lack of it, often dictates that this hard cutting back has to
be done, to keep the trees within limits.

A modified system is to leave some of the longer laterals full
length and curl them round in a circle, tying them firmly with
fillis string to make a loop. These loops will form fruit buds
along their length in subsequent years, and may be left intact so
long as there is room for them. As others are retained, the
oldest may be cut out. Espalier trees may be treated in the same
way as Cordons.

How to prune apple trees - Biennial

Bearing Some varieties of apples tend to produce a heavy crop one
year and a light one the next. If one has several trees, this
tends to balance out, as all the trees may not have the same "on
or off" tendency. If one has only 1 or 2 trees however, biennial
bearing could cause a total loss of crop one season, and the
trees would be likely to produce a heavier crop than usual the
next year, and a lighter than average the following season.

Where this is happening, before the expected cropping year,
pruning of new wood should be very light, and spur systems should
be reduced. A proportion, say one third, of the blossom should be
removed at flowering time. In other words aim at reducing the
over-heavy crops. Finally, when you have learnt how to prune
apple trees, all pruning should be done when the trees are
dormant, i.e. in autumn or winter.

About the Author
Paul Curran is CEO of Cuzcom Internet Publishing Group and
webmaster at, providing access to their
nursery supplier for a range of quality plants, trees, bushes,
shrubs, seeds and garden products.Visit
their fruit trees section to find a great selection of apple
trees for your garden

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