Every garden should have at least one tree and when I speak to clients with tiny gardens the Apple tree is the one I recommend most frequently. Not only do apple trees provide a rich source of pollen for bees they are beautiful trees for a small garden. The bonus is that with some light touch pruning you can also be rewarded with a trug full of delicious apples each year.
However, newer gardeners and experienced ones alike seem to recoil in horror when it comes to ‘formative pruning’; The practice of using pruning each year to help form the shape of their young apple tree. I’m going to walk you through the process so you can prune for success and remove any demons you may have about pruning apple trees.
- Why do we need to prune apple trees?
- What does pruning do?
- When to prune apple trees
- Making clean cuts
- Open goblet fruit tree shape explained
- How to prune an apple tree properly
- Fruit tree root stocks explained
Why do we need to prune apple trees?
We formatively prune apple trees in the winter to help shape their ultimate growth. We want apple trees that are well balanced, evenly spaced with an open habit that allows airflow and space for fruit. If we just plant an apple tree and leave it alone, the chances are it will put on a flurry of new growth which eventually gets tangled or damages itself.
The job of the gardener is to help select and shape that growth so we get the maximum potential out of the tree and ensure it grows to a pleasing shape. This means less damage, disease or garden drama when it comes to growing an apple (or other fruit) tree, in the garden.
Once formative pruning is complete, say in around 5 years. Then all other pruning is just light touch maintenance pruning to keep them in that shape.
What does pruning do to an apple tree?
Understanding how fruit trees respond to pruning is an essential part of successful pruning. However, most guides and books tend to skip over this step. I believe this is why gardeners become so fearful of pruning, opting to ignore it and hope for the best. Often at their peril as the tree struggles to fruit, becomes unruly or gets damaged by crossing weak branches.
When we prune a branch or leader (a stem that is vertically growing and vigorous) we remove part of that branch. This has the effect of sending the energy, hormones or ‘go-juice’ back to the next bud or lateral (sideways shoot or branch). Think of it like capping off a pipe in your kitchen, the water will divert and be pushed back to the next available tap or outlet.
So when we make a pruning cut, it will create growth further down from that cut. Rather than thinking of pruning as ‘removing growth potential’ we need to think of it as ‘creating growth potential’. Pruning does not weaken the plant but more focuses the energy elsewhere.
As we can choose where the make the cuts, we can choose where to focus the growth of the tree. Rather than thinking of pruning as ‘losing growth’ we need to shift out mindset to ‘choosing growth’.
When to prune apple & fruit trees?
For nearly all fruit trees formative pruning, the type that allows you to influence the ultimate growth and shape of a younger tree takes place in Winter. In the UK this is between November and late February before the tree starts to put on leaves.
This is when the sap has receded and the apple tree is dormant. It means the tree won’t bleed and also you can see exactly what you’re doing as the leaves will have already fallen. As you can see the pure outline of the tree without the distraction of delicious fruit or foliage!
The Prunus group of plums and cherries should not be pruned in winter but mid-spring to summer as they are susceptible to diseases from winter pruning. All other fruit trees are fine to be pruned in the winter. If you’ve read my Summer Vs Winter pruning guide you will know that:
- Winter pruning encourages growth
- Whereas late summer pruning restricts growth
With all pruning, avoid doing it in snow or frost. It is no fun for you or the fruit tree. I tend to wait until early February before I prune my fruit trees.
Making clean pruning cuts
Sharp secateurs are essential for easy successful fruit tree pruning. Clean neat cuts will heal faster and cause less stress to the tree. If you dig out your secateurs and they are rusty and look like they’ve been exhumed from the Titanic, it’s time to clean and sharpen them. My easy guide here shows you how to renovate secateurs.
Likewise, make sure the branches or laterals can be easily cut with your tools. If you need force, or you end up gurning to make your cuts, then you need a wood saw or loppers.
What is the open goblet pruning shape?
If you’ve done any reading on how to prune then you may have read about the ‘open goblet shape’. Whilst it is a good description of the pruning technique it can confuse newer gardeners. Especially because ‘goblet’ is usually only heard on Game of Thrones and not used in everyday language.
Another good way to think of the open goblet shape is like an upturned palm of your hand with all your fingers stretched out. This is the shape and spacing you want from your fruit trees. You don’t want anything crossing or too close together. Have a look at the examples below to see the open goblet or open palm shape for reference. If in doubt the video at the beginning of this guide shows you this shape in more detail.
How to prune an apple tree properly
Most gardeners are apprehensive to prune any plant, especially if it’s happily growing away. After all you’ve just planted it, you want it to succeed. However, with fruit trees pruning, even in year one is essential to help shape and form the tree.
If you’ve bought a young apple tree ‘whip’ ie one main stem with a few laterals pruning will help you whip it into a productive shape. Most fruit trees come as a 2-year-old graft like a long pencil with a few buds and side branches. Leaving a new fruit tree to grow like this without pruning will likely lead to a tangled mess or sky-high branches all congested and little fruit.
Even if you’ve had an apple tree a few years and not touched it, now is the time. By pruning it into shape sooner you’ll have less work to do and a better fruit tree because of it. Remembering that pruning is going to encourage growth and help your fruit tree fill out.
Follow the steps below for foolproof apple tree pruning
1. Inspect the tree and identify any damaged, crossing, rubbing or dead wood. These should be removed first. Take them back to the next branch down or off altogether if damaged.
2. Next up is removing 1/4 of this year’s new growth. Also known as the leaders, which is upward-facing growth on your fruit tree. You may notice that growth on the branches tends to point upwards which is natural. We are reducing these to cause more side laterals to break out. This in turn leads to more fruiting spurs to break out!
3. Remove any dual or double leaders. When shaping a fruit tree we want one main leader then all other growth shoots off from this. Forming that neat round tree canopy. You can spot dual leaders if you look at the main stem. If it forks into a ‘V’ sign and both are reaching upwards. You need to remove the weaker of the two. Back to the main trunk.
4. Work your way around the rest of the tree shortening and removing any growth that is likely to rub or is making the tree congested. Remember the open goblet or open palm shape. Even if you’re dealing with a very young tree you may find after pruning there are only 3 branches in this open goblet shape. That’s fine too! You’re forming the shape of the tree. Next year that maybe end up with 5-7 branches and then more the year after.
When you have finished you should have a shape or form similar to the image below on a 3-year-old tree.
As you develop your pruning skills there are numerous other tweaks for fruit trees. Such as summer pruning to thin out fruiting spurs and what not. You can read more on that here. However for now you are armed with the basic pruning skills you need to get your young apple trees into shape.
If you have an old or inherited fruit tree that’s in a bad way and needs serious pruning then follow my Winter fruit tree hard pruning guide above for advice.
Fruit Tree Rootstocks Explained
Another frequent question I get asked is ‘how big will my fruit tree grow?’. The answer is it depends on the rootstock. Nearly all fruit trees are grafted. Ie a scion of a fruit tree (cutting) is then grafted and bound onto a root stock that controls its ultimate height.
Fruit trees use different rootstocks depending on how big you want the fruit tree to be.
Have a look below and also check the labels of any trees you’re buying. This will help you anticipate how big it will grow.
M27 – V. Small 1-2m eventual height – Great for pots or patios, always keep staked
M9 – Small 1.8-2.5m eventual height -Very productive, always keep staked
M26 /MM11 / M9– Medium 2-3mt eventual height – Good for bushes or cordons, can be trained as a medium-sized tree
MM106 – Large 2.5-4.5m eventual height – Good sizes tree apple, more drought-tolerant due to larger rootstock, fruiting after 3-4 years
MM111 / M25– Large full-sized 5m eventual height – Full-sized apple tree, drought-tolerant and fruits after 4-5 years. Maximum yield.
Pruning is your best friend when it comes to growing beautiful and productive fruit trees. If we can reprogram our tentative pruning minds to view pruning as encouraging growth, rather than removing parts of the tree. It’s then easy with this mindset to then tackle pruning with confidence.
I hope that this guide has helped you put your pruning demons to bed when it comes to fruit trees. Pruning really is straightforward once you have the confidence to know what you’re cutting and why. I urge you to get out into your gardens and start taking control of your trees, they will thank you for it!
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