How do you prune an apple tree?

On our Essex farm stands an orchard (with cider apple varieties), put in by my uncle nearly 20 years ago. For most of the last few years (with the exception of this year as I have been at the opposite end of the country) I have ‘attempted’ to make cider, with a range of success. Ambition has never been lacking but skill levels could perhaps be improved!


However, whether the cider turns out well or not is besides the point when it comes to this post, as today we are looking at how to prune apple trees.

This is written in the light of my experience on Saturday when I helped out at the Community Farm, near Chew Magna in Somerset. It was time to prune their 50 or so apple trees. Thankfully, we were joined by an experienced expert – Pauline – who showed us the ropes. The trees on my own farm were pruned a few years ago but they are in great need of being cut back again. So, next time I head back home (living at a distance at the moment is a pain sometimes as it means that I miss out on these kinds of activities) this will be on the to-do list!

So, let’s look at what you need to do, to ensure a bountiful crop every year.

WHEN? – Ideally, apple (and pear) trees should be pruned every year. In terms of timing you should be looking  at pruning between November and March. The tree should be dormant.

WHAT’S THE AIM? – You want to create an ‘open goblet’ type shape with the branches all pointing outwards. You want to avoid having too many vertical branches and you want to give the tree room to develop. You want to let plenty of light into the centre of the tree.

WHAT EQUIPMENT DO YOU NEED? – A sharp pair of secateurs is a must. A pruning saw is really useful, as are a pair of loppers. Make sure your equipment is sharp, otherwise you might damage the tree and your work will be a lot more difficult.

WHAT TO DO FIRST? – Start by removing any DEAD, DISEASED, DAMAGED or DYING branches (remember the 4 ‘d’s). Then remove any branches that look particularly weak or branches that are crossing others. If you leave branches that are crossing, they will continue to grow in to each other and restrict overall growth.

Look out for signs of apple canker on the stems.

You will notice that the buds grow in a spiral shape. You should look to shorten the previous year’s growth (look out for ring type markings to see where growth begun) by about a third. Cut the branch just above the bud at a slanting angle.

You should leave any young side shoots unpruned so that they can develop fruit buds the following year.

Any branches growing towards or within the centre of the tree should be removed. They are overcrowding it.

Remove any spurs on the underside of the branches. They won’t get enough light anyway so are unlikely to bear fruit. Cut them very close to the branch. Also cut any spurs that are too low down – again, it is unlikely that they will get enough light.

Overall, you want to reduce any over crowding of branches in the tree and ensure that it is not too tall – otherwise you will find picking the apples rather difficult!

It is difficult to kill a tree (or so I am told!) so don’t worry about being too precious with it. It might take a bit of time to get your eye in as a beginner but you will soon pick it up and it will make a huge difference to the success of next year’s harvest!

Pruning trees this weekend at the Community Farm, Chew Magna.




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