Garden Projects

An introduction to pruning apple trees

homegrown apples on a treeThe best time to prune apple trees is in late winter or very early spring before any new growth starts. The tree takes up a dormant state after shedding its leaves and before sprouting new buds. Pruning is best completed just before growth starts in the Spring as cuts will heal quickly, cuts made in early winter will be open and unprotected until growth resumes in late March.

Pruning can look like a complicated process that can put some people off but is in fact relatively simple once you learn the basics. I’ve included a list of terms below which might be worth reading before we get stuck in, I’m hoping they will make it easier to understand the article.

Common Pruning Terms

Dormant An tree is in a dormant state in the Winter approx between November and February. At this time the leaves have fallen and the tree’s energy is conserved in the roots, trunk and main branches.

Flower budFlower buds are larger and more plump than growth buds and have a downy surface. Flower buds produce flowers which mature into fruit.

Wood or Growth budGrowth buds are smaller than flower buds, they are more pointed and grow flush with the branch.

Outward facing budAny growth bud which faces away from the centre of the tree.

Terminal budThe growth bud at the tip of a branch. Removing the terminal bud will stimulate the buds below to produce woody side shoots which will become new lateral branches.

SpurFruiting branches which produce apples, they look like small and stubby compressed stems with fruiting buds.

LeaderThe leader is a clear central-leading branch that grows upwards ahead of the other branches.

Scaffold or Lateral branches – Scaffold branches are the main supporting branches of the tree.

Crossing branch Crossing branches are branches that cross each other creating a dense canopy in the centre of the tree.

Downward branchA downward branch hangs down from a lateral or scaffold branch, these will never produce fruit and should be removed.

WhorlA whorl is where three or more small branches originate from the same location, it is common on unpruned mature trees.

Water Sprouts Water sprouts are thin branches which normally grow straight up from lateral branches and never bear fruit.

Suckers Suckers are unwanted shoots which grow near the base of the trunk.

Dead Wood Dead wood is as the name suggests any dead or diseased wood. Dead wood will be obvious when the tree is in leaf due to lack of any leaves but can also be recognised in Winter as it is dark and brittle, often with bark falling away.

Why Prune?
There are 3 reasons to prune a fruit tree:

  1. To establish the basic structure of the tree making is easy to maintain.
  2. To remove any dead, diseased or damaged wood to keep the tree healthy.
  3. To allow sunlight to access the ripening fruits.

I’m sure if you’ve noticed the best fruit is usually at the top of the tree? This isn’t some sort of cruel trick to make your life more difficult it is because this part of the tree gets more sunlight. It is helpful to keep the purpose of pruning in mind when deciding what branches to cut, we’re not just tidying the tree, we’re shaping it for optimum fruiting.

Pruning apple tree shapes

Tree shape
As we’ve said in the intro one of the main purposes of pruning is to get more sunlight to the fruit and this can be done by either pruning to a conical shape (central leader), a more rounded tree (modified central leader) or a vase shape (open centre). The conical shape gives the greatest yield and is most common so that’s what I’m looking at here but the same practices apply to all. First you need to learn how to control a tree by pruning and training, you can then create any shape you wish.

Identifying growth and flower buds.
Again, understanding your tree makes a big difference in how you prune it and one of the most important lessons is what the buds look like. A growth bud produces a branch but no fruit while a flowering bud will produce a flower which matures to become an apple. We prune above growth buds to shape the tree and prune flower buds to adjust the yield of the tree.

Apple flower and leaf budsGrowth or wood buds (Left)
Growth buds are much smaller than flower buds and grow tight in to the branch or stem. They are slender and more pointed and look more scaly than downy.

Flower buds (Right)
Flower buds are larger and more plump than growth buds and have a downy surface. You will easily see the difference in growth and flower buds by November. Flower buds grow on spurs which are short, stubby branches where the fruit is produced.

Pruning above growth buds allows you to control the growth of the tree by choosing a bud facing the direction you want to new growth to go in. Pruning above a growth bud facing towards the interior of the tree will result in the resulting shoot growing inwards while a bud facing away from the tree will produce an outward facing shoot. If we are creating an open tree with plenty of sunlight on the fruit we therefore want to prune above outward facing buds to produce a nice outward spreading branches.

Pruning cuts
There are two types of pruning cuts: thinning cuts and heading cuts.

Thinning cuts
Thinning cuts remove entire branches or limbs, paring them back to their point of origin where they meet another branch. Thinning opens the interior of the tree to receive more sunlight and channels energy into the remaining branches. The thinning cut is the preferred type of cut for pruning apple trees.

Heading cuts
Heading cuts are made anywhere along the length of a branch or limb to produce more vigorous growth below the cut. This growth is often weakly attached, however, with narrow angles that form between the original branch and the new growth. Heading cuts are necessary when pruning young trees, mature trees seldom need lots of new branches so heading cuts are made less frequently as the tree ages.

dead branch on an apple treeOk? Let’s get started – The 3 D’s.
The first easy job (as a bit of a warm up) is to attend to the 3 D’s, this means removing any Dead, Diseased or Damaged limbs. Dead limbs are easily recognisable as they will be brittle and snap easily while diseased wood tends to be a different colour than the surrounding branches. Damaged timber may occur where branches have crossed and rubbed against each other or where a branch has partially broken under the weight of the previous seasons apples.

Cut timber back to just above the nearest bud on healthy wood. Attending to the 3 D’s can and should be done at any time of the year to prevent spread of disease to the rest of the tree.

Apple tree pruning diagramIf you are removing a large lateral branch the method is to make 3 cuts to avoid the branch tearing at the trunk as it falls. Make the first cut below the branch about 6 inches from the trunk, this cut should be about a third of the distance into the branch.

The second cut is made about 3 inches below the first, you may need to cut all the way through but it is likely the branch will snap off when you reach the depth of the first cut.

You will be left with a stump with can now be safely removed from the tree. Cut as tight as you can to the branch collar as tree will heal quicker the more flush the wound is to the trunk.

Heading cut pruning apple treeHeading cuts and outward facing buds
To stimulate new growth we use a heading cut anywhere along the length of a branch. A heading cut is made just above a growth bud which will cause a new shoot to grow from the direction the bud is facing. You are looking for an outward facing bud because this will result in a branch growing away from the tree.

Heading cuts are used more when establishing young trees with very few branches, they are your opportunity to shape the tree. They are used to establish the main branches, a heading cut on a single central leader will produce a horizontal branch. In general heading cuts should be avoided once the initial shaping has been completed as it can result in an overcrowded tree. If you need to use a heading cut to shorten a long and thin lateral branch make the cut in old wood as this results in less new growth.

Prune watersprouts on apple treePruning suckers, whorls and water sprouts.
Suckers, whorls and water sprouts will never bear fruit and will produce a dense, leafy canopy rather than the bright open tree we’re aiming for so need to be removed. It makes sense to do this now as once removed you can see the shape of your tree more easily for your final training and fruiting pruning.

Cut all three offenders with a thinning cut as tight as you can to the branch or trunk, they all look quite similar as they are thin, whip like branches with growth buds along their length. You can see typical water sprouts in the photo opposite. When cutting suckers also trim any branches which are within 4 ft of the ground as they will be too shaded to produce apples.

Crossing branch apple treeRemove downward growing and crossing branches.
Basically you are trying to create a tree with well spaced lateral branches, any branches which interfere with your tree shape and create a dense framework should be removed.

Downward growing branches will also be shaded and unproductive while crossing branches can cause a wound from rubbing together which will be an entry point for disease. Crossing branches also provide a haven for moisture if a callous develops as in the photo making the area prone to rot. Use your now familiar thinning cut to remove complete branches.

Pruning an apple tree to a central leaderRemove vertical branches to leave the central leader.
Now you have cleared away much of the confusion in your tree you should he able to see its shape more clearly. In the photo you can see the main leader leaning towards the left of the photo. You can see side branches growing vertically competing with the leader which need to removed because they close off the top of the tree and shade the fruit below when in leaf. Cut right back to the main leader as shown with the red marks.

Next thin out any interior wood that doesn’t conform to your desired tree shape taking care not to remove more than 1/3 of branches. Your tree should start to resemble the diagram below with defined lateral branches rather than a full and bushy centre.

Pruned appl tree top view

Finally prune the upper branches back so they are shorter than the lower branches. Make sure you use thinning cuts taking branches back to their origin as pruning cuts will result in bushy growth at the top of the tree.

Pruning flower buds apple treePruning Flower Buds
A spur bearing variety produces flower buds on spurs which can become crowded after a number of years growth, a crowded spur will produce smaller fruit which may not ripen properly. Spur systems should be pruned to leave only 4 or 5 flower buds which will give you decent size fruit. You can remove a complete spur branch containing many flower buds to leave a single branch with the desired amount of buds.

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  1. Skitragic

    Thank you. This is the kind of information I’ve been searching for. Clearly written details backed up by photos – it is excellent.

      1. kiran macwana

        Hi.At last a easy to understand description of apple pruning! Thank you. I have 6 very mature apple tree (mixture of eaters & cookers) in a walled garden that I have taken over. It doesn’t look like the trees have been pruned for approx. 20 years. I have started taking out a lot of dead/crossing wood & trying to clear a lot of the over congestion. I have so far taken off 3 large trailer loads of prunings. The apples have still produce a huge crop but a lot of the fruit are so high up you would need a cherry picker to pick them & they just end up as windfall for the pigs. I understand that I have reduced this years crop as lots of fruit have inevitably fallen while carrying out this pruning but when should the trees start fruiting productively again after this hard removation pruning? Many thanks. Kiran

        1. Andrew

          Hi Kiran
          You trees should fruit well again next year. You could start to prune out the higher branches if you want to make the fruit more accessible but this should be dome gradually over a 3 year period. If you are happy with high fruit for pigs and you have plenty of lower fruit for yourself you can leave them be.

  2. Tony

    Hi Admin,

    I hope you don’t mind me asking question, but I have a James Grieve which does well every year even though my tentative approach to pruning and thinning is not very skilled. I try to follow the procedure but the problem is that the shape of the trees illustrated never match mine. Your pictures have gone along way to help. but one thing that puzzles me is that with fruiting spurs there is a thin branch growing beyond it which terminates in a leaf bud. Could you tell me, do I leave these or do a shorten them?

    Hope You can help.



    1. admin

      Hi Tony
      Sorry for the late reply to your question. The thin branch growing beyond the fruiting spur is last years growth. Look for the change in colour of the wood from smooth new growth to 2 year old bark and prune at that point. Keeping the trees tidy in this way will improve fruiting and keep the tree more compact, easy to harvest and less likely to be damaged by strong winds.
      I hope this helps

  3. Rober314

    Excellent descriptions and pictures. Best that I’ve seen.
    It would great to see how to prune an older tree which is too dense with producing branches.
    So hard to see what should go and what should stay. The last diagram is good for a tree like mine (if it was 5 to 8 yrs ago! )
    Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    1. admin

      Hi Robert. Thank you for getting in touch. Yes, I will have to put together and article on pruning older trees. It can be quite a bit of work over a number of years to bring an old tree back to good yields of fruit. In an orchard setting many people prefer to start again with a new tree but in a garden you might not want to do this. In general you want to open up the middle of the tree and expose as many branches as you can to sunlight. There’s a bit to it so I won’t go into detail now but I will get writing and will have a new article on the blog very soon.

  4. Kathy

    Have to agree with all the above comments. We have bought a house with 3 apple trees in the back garden and we are frightened to prune them incorrectly and loose fruit. Last year one tree did not bare fruit at all ? Was it down to bad pruning or the lack of it in previous years when I would imagine it hadnt been done ? I look forward to your new article on older trees when you get around to it.

    1. admin

      Hi Kathy
      A couple of questions for you:
      Did you fertilize the lawn around the tree?
      Did the other 2 trees bear plenty of fruit?
      Are the trees different varieties?
      Did all three bear fruit the previous year?


    1. Andrew

      Hi Jen. Thank you for your commment, I am glad you found the article helpful. I am in the process of doing one on older trees which might be of use later on. We are also filming a piece this week on pruning a plum tree which is more or less the same advice for apples, it should be live on our you tube channel in the next couple of weeks.

  5. Carrie

    I have two and three year old trees. Despite my best attempts at pruning, the branches are growing vertically. Do I weight them down? Or do I prune them (which would mean pruning more than 1/3 of the branches)? Or is there another course of action?

    1. Andrew

      Hi Carrie
      It is a little difficult to advise without seeing the tree but I would not remove the branches but instead use a heading cut to prune out the growth tip of the branches. This will cause lateral branches to grow out from the verticals. Prune the end of the main branches above an outward facing bud to encourage growth away from the center of the tree.
      I hope this helps

  6. Alex

    Thanks very much for this guide, it’s very clear.
    I planted out 2 year old container grown trees last spring and was advised not to prune in the first year while they established.
    However I’ve not seen this advice anywhere else; should I have pruned them, and if so can I make up for the error?

    1. Andrew

      Hi Alex
      It is highly likely your 2 year old trees had been pruned already to remove the central leader and grow the lateral branch network. The advice you got was correct if this is the case. If your trees have taken and are growing well they may benefit from some pruning at this stage but if the shape is good you can leave them be. Look for any branches that are growing into the center of the tree and remove them right back to their point of origin. Also take out branches that are crossing and rubbing against each other. Other than that I would be inclined to leave them alone.

      I hope this helps


  7. Angela Brady

    Thanks for this. Great easy to follow advice and clear pictures. I inherited an apple tree in my new house which was in a bad way. It had to but controlled as it was inside the garage and damaging next door’s fence. So this year my goal is to get it back into shape for future crops. There were thousands of Apples on the ground when we moved in so I am hopeful it is going to do well! Many thanks

    1. Andrew

      Hi Angela
      You’re welcome, I am glad you found the apple tree pruning article helpful. Let me know if you need any more help.

  8. Chrissie Buckley

    I have been ill and consequently did not prune my tree earlier in the year. It now has several long thin branches growing upwards above the spurs where the flower buds are. Would it be OK to cut these off or should I wait till next January?
    Many thanks

    1. Andrew

      Hi Chrissie
      Thank you for your question. Provided the upward growing water sprouts aren’t too numerous it will be OK to remove them now. If you pruned the tree back hard resulting in large numbers of sprouts you are better waiting until next February.
      I hope this helps

  9. Sparklingsilver

    This site looks just right for me. I have a new virgin garden with enough room to grow three fruit trees so chose my favourites rather than suitable for the region: Cox’s Orange Pippin (rather a challenge for a novice I am told), James Grieves and Victoria Plum. They were planted in Feb/March and are now just sprouting small leaves – in other words have survived the Northumberland East Sea winter wind in a SW walled garden. What to do next proved a little more challenging. I understand fruit/fruit blossom should not be allowed to develop for the first three years – is this correct and how do I understand the process of removing? I would like the trees to develop into the open centre shape for ease of harvesting so pruning another lesson to be learnt – together with best practice for the trees care. So all help and advice much appreciated.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Sparklingsilver

      Great to hear your apple trees are coming into leaf and are happy in their new homes. With regard to fruiting, I would not allow the trees to bear fruit for the first 2 years but if the tree is growing well I would allow small amounts of fruit to develop in year 3. You can control fruiting by removing the immature fruits around the end of June. You will see the apples begin to develop from the base of the blossom once the petals have fallen off. You can allow one fruit to develop to see what it is like, a single fruit will not put a strain on the tree.

      One of the best things you can do for your young apple trees is to keep a circle of at least 1.5 meter diameter around the tree weed and grass free, you do not want any competition for available water and nutrients. Clear any grass or weeds and apply a mulch to prevent new weed seeds from germinating.

      As regards pruning, I would leave it for this year as the tree is in leaf. It is highly likely your tree has already has it’s initial pruning done by the nursery. Next Spring, before your trees come out of dormancy you can begin some formative pruning, I will have detailed information on the blog by then!

      I hope this helps


  10. Sandra Harvey

    Excellent, clear helpful information. Our apple tree is about 70 years old. We have tried to keep it open in the centre and it does generally produce loads of fruit. Well too much really but it is a garden feature and gives us a nice shady sitting spot. We do suffer with lots of water shoots and it is good to read that I should take these off in the dormancy period. The main problem is the height of the tree. It is unreachable on its 5 major branches and just keeps growing further out of reach with stronger, thicker branches. Any idea or do I need to get in a professional at some exorbitant expense?

    1. Andrew

      Hi Sandra
      Thank you for your kind comments on our article. Pruning large mature trees may require a professional for technique, correct tools and safety. If you want to tackle the job yourself do plenty of reading up beforehand. Essentially you need to avoid ‘topping’ which is cutting significant wood off large branches. This results in uncontrolled growth and masses of water shoots. You should also do your pruning over at least 3 years. Ideally you want to remove branches right back to their point of origin whether that is from the trunk or where they join another main branch. You can take them down in sections for safety as long as the whole is removed. We also have an article on pruning mature trees which you can access here: https://www.quickcrop.co.uk/blog/prune-mature-apple-trees/

      You don’t say how large the tree is but at 70 I am assuming it is very large. I would recommend a professional to do it for safety alone but be aware there are many ‘professionals’ out there who don’t know how to prune a fruit tree. Make sure they know what they are doing by educating yourself first and ask them to go through their renovation plan. If they are intending to cut the tops off branches to tidy tree you should move on.

      I hope this helps



    I may well have missed a reply on this subject, amongst your excellent advise, for which I apolgise. My Apple is looking great after following your pruning advice during winter months. It is now bearing much fruit (June 2018). however there are many growing tips, currently 6 – 8 inches long. My question is, can I now nip these soft branches off during the summer? Many thanks.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Derek

      Yes, you can take off any new water sprouts within reason, it depends what percentage of the total foliage they are. If you didn’t prune too hard and don’t have a big, uncontrolled flush of sprouts you will be OK to remove them all. If in doubt remove half of them and do the other half in the Winter. The risk is that if the tree feels it is losing too much foliage it might go into another spurt of vegetative growth and drop the fruit.
      I hope this helps

  12. Ian

    Hi was given a apple tree not a clue which one but i seem to get apples only on one branch little ones at that please help

    1. Andrew

      Hi Ian
      You will need need to give me more information on your apple tree. Firstly is it planted in soil or in a pot?

  13. james loughrey

    great info , we have a small orchard that was heavily cut back before we moved in id like to bring the trees back to life . on some of the trees there are a lot of water spouts that have matured over a few seasons should they all be removed ?

  14. Jill Rayment-Williams

    I have inheritated what I think is an apple tree when I moved to a new house.Its 2 metres tal but has no branches.It has a lot of tiny buds and flowers on short sticks which jut out at the sides.I think it’s about 3years old.Should it have branches yet?

  15. Bronte Roberts

    Hi, having asked around and scoured the internet, I’m desperately hoping you can advise me on what to do with a damaged crab apple. I have a young malus Harry Baker. It’s about 6foot and due to moving and other excuses it has been stuck in a pot its entire life. Unfortunately, despite being loosely secured to a telegraph pole (!) it has fallen over a few times in gales and the branches have been badly damaged. I’ve pruned out of necessity but now that I’m finally getting round to putting all my poor trees in the ground, I have no idea if this one will grow “new” branches from the trunk or if it’s going to be scrappy looking permanently. Its also had some damage due to producing a lot of fruit from one point on a couple of branches. I had no idea this was something I should watch for. I have this and another malus to cross pollinate my egremont russet and would be really sad to lose it. It’s healthy but looks pretty awful and I’m hoping that if I get it in the ground and give it the care it deserves that new branches will miraculously appear!!! Help!

    1. Andrew

      Hi, your tree will develop a more defined shape as it grows. Make sure all damaged or diseased branches are removed. Regards.

  16. Charlotte

    Hi, I have a Spartan Apple tree which produced an amazing crop of fruit this year without any problems from wasp damage! So great, however the tree is growing sideways and at quite a jaunty angle. I would like it to start going straight up- can I remove a lot of the low branches without killing it off?

    1. Andrew

      Hi, its not advisable to cut out the lower branches, this will promote vigorous growth higher up the tree making it congested. It may be better to find out why the tree is taking a sideways route. This could be a prevailing wind or neighbouring trees blocking light.

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