Pruning Apple Trees in Winter

Published on February 1st 2020
Unrecognizable man pruinig apple tree in winter
Winter shouldn't stop us gardening, but the wet certainly makes it harder. Waterproofs and thermal clothing go a long way to making my time in the garden less of a struggle.
Still, there's one element of winter gardening that I really enjoy - pruning apple trees. There's something special about being able to see the limbs without their summer clothing.
Ideally done on a dry frost-free day, pruning is a gentle garden activity, and you will be able to see the fruits of your labour (literally) for years to come.

Getting started

Sharp tools are a must. Blunt saws, loppers and secateurs can leave rough cuts, which apart from looking untidy, are perfect entry points for diseases. And at this time of year, cuts take longer to heal over.
Fit for purpose ladders. Check to make sure you're using equipment that won't collapse under you. A&E is a busy place, especially in winter.
A red, frost covered apple sitting on a branch.
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Apple (spur fruiting) and Pears

Get the best from your tree by giving it an annual hair cut. Many crossing branches on old trees can rub, creating open wounds for pests and diseases to enter.
Reduced airflow through the centre can also encourage fungal growths, and thick foliage will block light to developing buds and fruit.
  • 1. Your first cuts should be to remove the 4D's - dead, diseased, damaged or dying branches.
  • 2. After that, look for any branches that are crossing or rubbing.
An example of two branches that have been rubbing against each other, leaving one with worn away bark.
These rubbing branches could leave the tree open to infection or cause dieback of the damaged branch.
  • 3. Once these have been removed, you can start cutting back last year's growth. The stems at the end of branches, known as primaries, can be cut back by one third. Make cuts just above a bud that is facing outwards.
  • 4. Leave side shoots (young laterals) as these are where fruit buds will develop in the following year. However, if there are too many, they can be thinned to roughly 10 to 15cm apart (4 - 6").
  • 5. Open up the centre. Cut out any new growth longer than 15cm that is growing inwards towards the centre of the tree. This will increase airflow and enable pollinators with better access.
  • 6. Spur thinning. On older trees, the spurs (flowering and fruiting stems) can become crowded. It might be worth occasionally thinning these to increase the fruit size. Cut away spurs on the undersides of branches first, as these will have restricted light.
A close up of a fruiting spur of an apple tree being held by a human hand.
This fruiting spur is growing underneath a branch and could easily be removed.

Apple (tip or partial tip-beared)

Apple trees whose fruit are produced at the tips of last years growth are pruned slightly differently.
Steps one, two, five and six can be followed. However, to keep the tree from getting too tall, only remove twenty-five per cent of the older branches.
Cut back the selected branches to a healthy young shoot near the main stem. This will become the replacement cropping branch in a few years.
An espalier trained tree against a sunny red brick wall .

Espalier or cordon trained

Trees that are espalier or cordon trained are generally not pruned in winter unless they have been neglected or you have a very vigorous variety.
Spread any renovating cuts over several years to reduce stress. Be prepared to remove any regrowth in the summer.
Occasionally, the fruiting spurs of trained tress can become overcrowded. These can be thinned out (step six), reducing the risk of branches snapping under the weight. Cut back just above a dormant bud, leaving a stub about 3 to 5cm from the main stem.

Renovating old trees

Trees that have been neglected for a while will need a renovating cut. Click on the link for advice on how.
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