The overall theory of pruning apple trees is to first train the young apple tree to grow efficiently, and then to promote the best production of good quality fruit as the tree matures.
By training a young apple tree to grow “correctly” you enable the tree to develop a strong structure that will be able to support heavy apple growth, plus you will have a tree shape that is easy to manage in later years. A well-applied regimen of training and pruning apple trees stimulates strong growth of only those branches you wish to keep as lasting parts of the mature tree.
Once the young apple tree has been trained for several years to form its shape, annual pruning then becomes the means of keeping the desired shape and encouraging the best fruit production. Most
pruning is done to encourage growth, and this type of pruning is done in late winter while trees are dormant. The wounds inflicted by pruning heal best then, plus flower buds are easy to spot. You can also prune your trees in late summer, but only if you wish to discourage growth.
So what is the secret to pruning apple trees? Simply put, the best apples will grow on branches that are from two to five years old. To keep a good supply of branches at this age, prune the older branches out each year, allowing younger branches to replace them.
Apple Tree Pruning Basics
Most apple trees grown by home gardeners are small-to-medium sized, and are best trained to the central-leader or pyramid system of pruning. The central-leader pruning method suits trees that have a dominant central trunk with lateral branches at regular intervals. In essence, it is a cone or pyramid shaped tree.
With the central leader pruning method, more sunlight is allowed to reach inside the tree. Basically, you prune the upper branches to stay shorter than the lower branches. Wide spacing between the upper and lower branches is key here, and a good rule of thumb is to keep the branches about three feet apart on a mature tree.
It is essential to make clean cuts, so always use good-quality, sharp pruning shears, and for bigger cuts use sharp lopping shears and saws. Shears with two sharp sides (like scissors) are better than the types with one sharp and one blunt side.
The first thing to do is cut away all dead, broken, or diseased branches. Also cut out any wood that crosses over or crowds other branches.
Next, identify the central leader and prune other limbs that compete with it. Look the tree over and decide which branches you want to keep. Your goal is to keep more horizontal branches and less vertical branches.
Remove limbs that cause too much shading. Remember with a mature tree to choose two or three of the oldest, larger branches on the tree for pruning. Take into account their position and whether a younger replacement branch is nearby. Often you’ll see this choice is easy to make.
Remove suckers from around the tree base, and spindly shoots and water sprouts from along the limbs. Make your pruning cuts nearly, but not completely, flush with the branch, leaving no stubs (these can become hosts to rot and disease.) If you do make a pruning cut that is completely flush with the limb or the trunk, the wound will not heal as quickly.
If your task is pruning apple trees that have been neglected, do not prune severely, all at one time. Excessive pruning can be too much of a shock to the tree’s system, so spread the work over two or three years.
What’s the best teacher for pruning? Experience! Learn about pruning apple trees by following good, basic fruit tree pruning instructions, and you’re bound to become a seasoned pro. A few wrong cuts will be many times better than no pruning at all.