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Apple Pruning

Pruning fruit tree1

Pruning fruit treeApple trees are best pruned in winter when they are dormant.

Young apple trees can grow narrow and erect or open and spreading. At maturity, the apple tree will be spreading.

Prune young narrow and erect apple trees by cutting branches just above buds which are pointed away from the center of the tree.

Prune open and spreading apple trees by cutting above buds pointed toward the center of the tree.

Apple trees produce fruit on “spurs.” Spurs are formed on branches one-year-old or more. Spurs usually appear on the lower or inner portion of branches.

Spurs are short lateral growths that can vary in length from one to three inches. Spurs have a stubby, thick appearance. They produce blossoms and fruit year after year. For bountiful harvests, preserve spurs as much as possible.

Apple Tree Pruning Step-by-Step

1. To begin pruning a maturing apple tree, first cut out any dead or diseased branches. Make your cuts as close to the main branch as possible. Avoid leaving stubs that can be susceptible to disease and rot.

2. Next, cut away crossing branches that rub against one another. Also, cut away branches that swoop down close to the ground that may get in the way of cultivation and harvest.

Evenly remove past years’ growth working to allow sunlight access into the center of the tree from the top. In essence, you are shaping the tree to an open vase form. Be careful not to remove established fruit spurs or small laterals developing into fruiting spurs.

3. Cut new branch growth just on the outside of fruit spur buds. Young trees that add considerable new growth each year may require new growth to be pruned two-thirds of the way back.

Water sprouts–new green whips which grow vertical to branches–should be cut away regularly. Water sprouts are unlikely to develop into fruiting wood.

Suckers are rapid new growth from below the ground. Remove suckers as they appear. Dig down and cut suckers at their base close to the root or trunk.

If an older tree has lost branching, water sprouts can be allowed to fill in vacant spots. But it is best to head sprouts back to slow excessive growth.

4. Thin fruit from apple trees after the “June drop.” The “June drop” is a natural thinning process of all fruit trees. It is nature’s way of adjusting the crop to what the tree can bear. June drop commonly occurs sometime in the months of May, June, or July. It is best to hand thin fruit remaining after the June drop if you suspect the tree will be unable to support it.

As apple trees grow older, less pruning will be necessary if the tree has been well trained in its first years of growth.

Also of interest:

How to Plant, Grow, Prune, and Harvest Apples

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.


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  1. I have a problem with my potato plants. The past two years I have planted Yukon Golds….the yield has been pretty decent, but the plants themselves seem to me to be too high. I’m talking 4-5′ high, and “gangley”. I have to stake them and i don’t think I should have to. The first year I planted them in a trench, and kept hilling them. In an effort to solve the problem, I again planted them in a trench, but when they got high enough, I constructed a “raised bed” around them, so as to be able to hill them higher, but to no avail…..still very tall. Suggestions? Tnx

    • I have a couple of suggestions: for this year, you might consider placing a wire cage around your tall potato plants and covering the developing tubers with clean straw or shredded leaves. You can “hill up” to just below the top leaves. You can use a mesh construction wire to make the cage. Next year, avoid nitrogen-rich fertilizers or manures in the planting bed before you get started–too much nitrogen can result in extra leaf and stem growth. Also next year, plant your seed potatoes in an extra deep trench–8 inches deep instead of the usual 4 inches.

  2. I bought two apple trees a couple of years ago. Unfortunately one is growing so that all the limbs come out of the same location high up on the tree. Can someone help me with how to prune this topheavy tree to get it growing correctly before it starts bearing fruit?

    • If you consider the tree still a whip–a slight tree–then cut it back to a healthy bud no higher than 24 inches off the ground for a dwarf or semi-dwarf and 36 inches for a standard tree. Be sure there are three to six healthy buds distributed around the tree–these will grow out to form your open center scaffold. When the scaffold branches grow out, use spreaders to make sure the branches spread widely. Pinch away any competitor buds. Later, prune your scaffold branches back to strong outward-facing lateral buds.

  3. Greetings Steve! I am having trouble understanding why if a hybrid is defined as a cross between two species or selections of species, or less often, different species of the same genera, why apples fruit true when pollinated by another variety. And, what other than bloom time, makes one variety a compatible and others, not.

    • There are several genetic mechanisms in apples (and angiosperms generally) that prevent self-fertilization and encourage cross-fertilization. I would encourage you to research more thoroughly self-incompatibility in plants. A short and simplistic answer to your question is: protein-coding in the pistil and anther (the two are genetically linked) can lead to the arrest of pollen germination and/or pollen tube elongation, and thereby generate a self-incompatibility response which prevents fertilization. But, when a female determinant interacts with a male determinant of a different haplotype (a group of alleles in an organism that is inherited together from a single parent) no self-incompatibility is created, and fertilization ensues. The mating tree’s pollen influences only the genes in the seed. This is a simplistic description.

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