How to Safely Prune Your Apple Tree

How to prune an apple tree

Apple trees are a wonderful addition to any garden. And even though most hardy fruit trees don’t need help to grow high-quality produce, pruning your apple tree will enhance those results significantly.

Whether want to learn the basics of how to prune an apple tree specifically in Australia or anywhere else in the world – this article has got you covered.

How to safely prune an apple tree

To prune an apple tree, you don’t need a lot of equipment:

  • Sharp shears
  • Smaller pruning shears
  • Possibly a hand saw
  • Something to sharpen your shears with

And here are the steps to safely pruning your apple tree:

  • Remove dead and dying wood – Any wood that looks dead, dying or diseased needs to be chopped away. Make sure you get it all, even if that means a little bit of healthy wood has to go at the same time.
  • Remove branches that brush – Any branches that cross over each other very closely will cause you problems when it’s time to harvest. They may also rub bark away from each other, removing your apple tree’s protection against disease. Prune away the one which has the worst angle (more on this below) or looks the least healthy.
  • Remove the bigger braches first – In many jobs, they say “start small and work up from there”. When pruning your apple tree, the reverse is true. Try to follow smaller problems back towards the trunk. You should aim to eliminate one larger branch which crosses over others rather than lots of smaller twigs.
  • Work cleanly – Make sure the tools you’re using are kept sharp. If that means taking a break to sharpen them again, that’s what you need to do. When removing a branch, cut cleanly close to – but not into or right next to – the trunk or branch joint. If you’re sawing, cut through the bark at the bottom first so that your final saw stroke doesn’t rip away the bark.
  • Work calmly – Your apple tree isn’t going anywhere! Don’t rush the job. Take a step back every so often and judge the shape of the tree you’re pruning to keep things roughly in balance.

Pro tip: Overall, you should be aiming for between two and six main branches, evenly distributed around your tree. This number of branches should allow plenty of air to pass towards the centre of the tree. You will want these branches to be growing no more than 50 degrees away from the trunk. Branches which are angled further away will grow less fruit.

How to prune an overgrown mature apple tree

Our advice is to divide the work into different stages over several winters to space out the regrowth. This can be a long and tedious process, so it would be easier if you distribute the work in manageable periods. Even if it takes more than one go, don’t worry. Just continue working.

You might think that healthy regrowth is what you’re looking for with an older or overgrown tree. But if you cut back too much at once, you’ll encourage the tree to grow upwards which will result in producing less fruit, if any.

Pro tip: While pruning a mature or less cared-for tree, concentrate on the likely profusion of smaller branches and the larger ones which cross each other.

How to prune a young apple tree

Unlike an older tree, a young apple tree will be the happiest when it’s cut back quite heavily – a process sometimes called “heading” or “heading back”. This usually involves pruning back around 25-30% of last year’s growth from your tree, as well as the same percentage height from the trunk or main stem of your young tree.

These calculations can sometimes be quite tricky for someone new to pruning trees. To avoid mistakes, it’s better to be slow and extra careful in your work. Take a step back from time to time to assess your work and make sure everything is even. If, by any chance, you feel unsure how to proceed at a certain stage of the pruning, advice or visit from an experienced gardener can guide you in the right direction.

When is best to prune your apple tree according to season

Timing plays an important role for a successful tree pruning process, so keep reading for more on information on that matter.

Winter

If you’re trying to decide how and when to prune an apple tree in Australia specifically, winter is almost certainly going to be your best bet. It’s a good idea in many other parts of the world too – especially if you’re trying to encourage your tree to grow in a more suitable, healthier shape.

But how do you prune an apple tree in winter? Isn’t it wrong to prune the tree while it’s dormant?

It’s quite the opposite! Much as it might seem logical to cut into the tree when it’s looking its greenest, pruning in winter is much better if you want to make it grow back healthy and in good shape for harvesting. Wait until the real colder weather has set in and your tree looks properly dormant before getting started on winter pruning.

Spring

If you’re trying to work out how to prune an apple tree in spring, the general advice is not to.

If it’s very early spring and your tree hasn’t started turning green yet, it’s still effectively winter, and you can get away with it. If not, it’s best to wait until late summer at the very earliest. If you prune in late spring in particular, you risk the tree getting damaged by the heat of the summer sun.

Summer

The critical period for pruning apple trees in summer is after the fruit has been picked later in the season – or even what might be early autumn.

If you prune at the height of summer, you risk attenuating the shade which the leaves, fruit and branches of the tree provide for itself. Late summer pruning though, is ideal for many types of apple trees. For many types – especially if you’ve already done some winter trimming to establish a good shape and general health – figuring out when and how to prune an apple tree in summer is the best way to encourage it to produce more fruit.

Autumn

If you’re trying to work out how to prune an apple tree in autumn, much like spring, the safe answer is to wait.

If you prune in autumn, all you will likely do is encourage your tree to start new growth that will be instantly vulnerable to the winter chill. Wait until after your tree has become dormant and consider some winter pruning instead.

Takeaways:

  • There are five key things to bear in mind when pruning your apple tree: remove dead and dying wood, remove brushing branches, remove bigger branches first, remove cleanly and remove with care.
  • Winter is an excellent time to prune your apple tree if you want it to grow back healthier or if you want to shape your tree.
  • Late summer or early autumn is a good time to prune your apple tree if you want it to grow more fruit.
  • Aim for between two and six main fruiting branches growing from the trunk at a maximum of 50 degrees.
  • There are several different types of apple trees, so be sure to check which yours is to confirm whether winter or summer pruning may be more advisable.

If unsure, it is always better to leave the tree pruning to a specialist!

Fantastic Gardeners Melbourne are certified and experienced pros who can help!

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