When to Prune Apple Trees

I grew up with apple trees around my house. While looking at their former spots today, I thought about how I would often walk out to them at a specific time of year to prune them and give them the best chance at thriving possible.

I always found that late winter and very early spring were usually the best times to prune apple trees. A reason for pruning at this time include the fact that you will more clearly see what parts of the tree are dead and need removing. Additionally, the tree will be able to heal from cut wounds quickly during this time period.

Why pruning at the end of winter or early spring is the sweet-spot

This time of year can be the best time to prune your apple tree because you get to see what branches are  dead or healthy. Your tree is about to to use a lot of energy for spring growth. By cutting away the branches that aren’t healthy or desirable, all the energy will flow into the healthier branches, meaning that overall you have a better tree.

The above also explains why  pruning during autumn is such a bad idea. In autumn, instead of the tree using energy,   the  tree will actually withhold  releasing energy. This means the tree will find it difficult to heal it’s wound from cutting and trimming that may take place.

Another reason why pruning at late winter/early spring may  be a good idea for many is because you’re avoiding extreme weather conditions. In many places during the peak of winter you could be faced with extremely cold weather and blizzards. During the peak of summer you may be faced with extreme heat making your job a lot more tiring. Hence, late January to early March (depending on the year and location’s climate) could be the best time for you.

Pros and cons of pruning after spring arrives 

Pruning an apple tree in spring does bring some benefits. Firstly, the weather is often milder than during the sweet spot of pruning. It might be during a time where there is little risk of snow or early morning frost, meaning that you won’t be freezing when trying to remove some troublesome branches from  you’re adored apple tree.  Also, it’s well before the potential scorching heat of summer in many places.

Another benefit of pruning in spring is that you now can more clearly see which branches are healthiest and most productive.

Moving onto the cons, when you prune in spring the tree has already used up a good bit of its energy on growing its branches. This means you’re not getting the the highest productive efficiency from your tree regarding healthy and fruitful branch growth.  This underlines the importance of pruning a little bit earlier. For the vast majority of apple tree growers they want to their trees to be as healthy and productive as possible . Avoiding pruning later in spring may just help you achieve this result.

Some of the benefits of pruning during the summer

One of the big benefits of pruning in summer is that can target new shoots that have grown on the tree. By removing these shoots you can ensure that the other older branches that are healthy receive more sunlight. The extraction of these newbies also improve the circulation of air around other  branches of the tree. This circulation of air may be preventative in unwanted disease and pests making their presence felt on the tree.

The tree also doesn’t have as much energy  as spring, therefore by removing unneeded branches that energy is hence focused on the more established and productive branches. The energy can hence be more effectively used.

Pruning in summer can be a good idea for  older trees that have bloomed for many many years. You may choose to prune your tree during the sweet spot and then again in the summer.

The right tools for pruning during the sweet-spot

When you have decided on what branches are the target on your apple tree then you must consider what specific tool to use. The most important tool of all tools to use when pruning a tree is of course a pruner . For small thin branches you should use a pruner shears or hand pruners.

Of course, any tool with blades can become blunt. Therefore, always make sure they are appropriately sharpened or you have a fresh pair when your old one doesn’t do the job. It’s important to note that if you use the same pruner year  after year  it would be wise to replace them. You mightn’t notice that they have become less effective due to its increasing bluntness and ageing.

For  bigger branches is recommended that you use a hand saw. These can be a bit more dangerous then pruners, always use with care.

What exactly to prune off your apple tree

If you have planted a new apple tree whip or you have just transplanted a very young tree, then don’t be afraid to cut off up to a third of it. This will focus the energy of the tree on fewer branches and on the roots. This process overall gives you a better chance of having a tree that will go on to be stronger and healthier in the coming years. 

The process of pruning  an apple tree is to give you the best chance for it to be as healthy and productive as possible. Therefore, for young and slightly older trees you should prune away any unwanted branch that comes in contact with or blocks the sunlight of a branch that you would like to see remain. Additionally, you should remove branches that are growing inwards  towards the tree as these branches might undermine optimal air flow around your apple tree. Don’t be afraid to take too much off. With more branches you remove not only do you increase the chances of other branches receiving more sunlight, but you also improve air circulation. Additionally, you focus the energy of the tree on to a select group of the healthiest branches. This will increase the chances of you having a more productive tree with better fruit.

You need to be mindful however of not cutting any branch that may lead to  an outcome that you are not peased with. For example, if you were to remove the center branches or leader branches of the tree then you might increase the likelihood of the remaining  branches receiving more sunlight and good air circulation. However, over the years the remaining branches might grow wider than you have anticipated as energy is focused away from the now non-existence central branches and toward the side branches. This could cause issues if you are growing in a small space, say a crowded backyard for example. 

Additionally, it is often recommended that apple trees incorporate a central leader training system when the tree is being shaped in the initial years. This is a thin and tall strategy for you apple tree, where a central leader trunk is present. The apple tree usually has natural leader branches that are tall and grow upright. You should hence consider keeping the side branches in check if you want optimal fruit growth. This system promotes this strategy and results in a cone or pyramid shaped tree.

Suckers can’t be overlooked

Suckers are plants that sprout up from the rootstock at the base of your tree. Unfortunately, they more than likely won’t produce any apples or fruit. Always be on the look out for suckers and never be shy in removing them. If they aren’t removed they could stunt the performance of your apple tree, by absorbing much needed nutrients and energy.

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