9 Guidelines for Pruning Apple Trees

THERE’S A LOT OF VARYING ADVICE AVAILABLE ON PRUNING APPLE TREES. Even expert apple tree pruners admit that, after years of experience, they don’t truly understand what’s best in every situation. Often, there’s a dizzying array of factors that could impact the outcome of a cut. The objective of this article is to provide simplified guidelines that will help backyard gardeners get good results.

If you’re not already convinced, there’s no question that proper pruning is necessary for apple trees. The simple truth is your apples won’t be as big and you won’t get as many if you don’t prune. And, in the North, the end of February is probably the best time to prune mature trees. The end of February is when it’s most difficult for disease and bugs to get a foothold in pruning wounds. So do it now if there’s not too much snow on the ground.

Boiling it down to simple guidelines

In an attempt to get you out there pruning, this article provides nine easy to remember points that can help backyard gardeners do a good job in most situations.

Although I grew up with 12 apple trees in my backyard and have kept apple trees for more than half of my life, the information in this post doesn’t come from my experience. Most, but not all of the guidance, comes from Michael Phillips’ book The Apple Grower: a Guide for the Organic Orchardist. You can read the chapter on pruning for free from Google Books at Pruning Apple Trees. Phillips is one of the best recognized authorities on growing apples organically.

If you really want a more in depth understanding of apple tree pruning, as well as all the other factors that go into organic apple growing, you should get The Apple Grower. If you buy it using this link, I make a small amount of money from the purchase.

Here are my nine guidelines for pruning apple trees:

1. Get to know your tree’s flower buds, terminal buds and leaf buds. Some trees grow apple blossom buds on spurs. Some grow these blossoms on the tips of their branches. Still others grow apples on a combination. Flower buds are bigger and plumper than leaf buds. By being able to pick out where your flower buds are, you can better see where the apples will likely grow. This will help you avoid cutting off to many flower buds. See the video below to see what these buds look like. [Editors note: For good results, do as I say not as I do. The tree in the video has several narrow crotches due to neglect.]

2. Don’t prune too much. Apple tree varieties vary on how much pruning they can handle, but it is always better to prune too little than too much. According to Phillips, you need 40 leaves to support each apple. Don’t try to meet all my other guidelines at the expense of removing too many leaf and flower buds. If the tree needs a lot of pruning, spread it out over a few years until you catch up.

3. Start pruning from the top down to visualize how light will penetrate. This will help you better understand if the entire tree is getting enough light and air flow.

4. Remove damaged or diseased branches. If this results in an empty spot, do your best to let other branches grow to fill in.

5. Cut off one branch when two branches cross. Branches that rub against each other create wounds that can become diseased.

6. Remove branches (on mature trees) that are not at least three feet off the ground. Phillips refers to this area as the fungal zone. This includes removing any root suckers that grow up from the roots around the tree.

7. Open up the center of the tree.  This provides good access to make it easier (1) for air and light to penetrate the interior section, (2) to put footies on apples to protect against pests (more on this in a future post) and, most importantly, to pick the apples. The old rule of thumb is you should be able to throw your hat through the tree.

8. Cut off branches that grow inward towards the center of the tree. All branches should grow outward.

9. Remove branches with narrow crotch angles. These branches are more likely to break and rip the trunk apart if they have a heavy load of apples or ice during the winter. The best scaffold branches have a 45 degree angle.

The following video addresses point number one.

If you’ve got easy to implement apple tree pruning guidelines, please let us know in the comment section below.

Related articles that might interest you:

1. Best of the Blogs Friday Feb. 11
2. Plenty of Heirloom Apples
3. Book Review: The Apple Grower
4. Growing Organic Apple Trees


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12 Responses to “9 Guidelines for Pruning Apple Trees”

  1. February 14, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    Richard Hentschel, Extension Specialist at the University of Illinois, suggested that the University of Kentucky fact sheet at http://www.uky.edu/Ag/HLA/appletraining.pdf provides some great information on pruning apple trees.

  2. June 19, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    I agree with “2. Don’t prune too much.”

    I think many gardeners and landscapers start off with their fancy new pruning tools and get just a little bit too excited about all the branches they can prune.

    Instead you may want to visualize how you want the trees to look and then go a little slower on the pruning lol!

  3. May 1, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    This is a great guide. Fruit trees are by far the most challenging to prune properly. I think point #7 is especially important to understanding fruit tree pruning – the idea is to allow sunlight to reach all of the buds and fruit.

    • May 4, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

      Brian — You make a very good point. Sunlight is critical.

  4. Danny A Medford
    February 13, 2017 at 10:22 am #

    I pruned my two little apple trees about 3 years ago and I haven’t seen a bloom on them since. What did I do wrong or has frost got to them maybe?

    • February 13, 2017 at 10:31 am #

      Danny — Boy that’s quite a disappointment. I feel sorry for you. I don’t think that pruning alone would prevent blossoms for 2 straight years. I’m just speculating (because there could be many reasons) but I think maybe the first year you might have cut off most of the buds and then the second year frost got them. Insects could also be to blame. I have web worms that hit just before the blossoms bloom and if I didn’t get rid of them, they would eat every blossom. Did you see apple buds (as opposed to branch buds) last year?


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