Winter is pruning time for apple and pear trees. In the first few years of a tree’s life the idea is to encourage a nicely shaped tree with a strong framework of branches. On older established trees, pruning is all about getting light into the tree. More sun means more fruit! Pruning is also about rejuvenation - stimulating the growth of younger, more productive fruiting branches. On most apple varieties the best wood for fruiting is between one and four years old.
Pruning is both a science and an art. There is no right or wrong way, but following some basic principles is the best route to success without stress.
Pruning tools should be clean and sharp. This makes the job easier and minimises disease.
Start by removing dead, damaged, and diseased branches. Make sure you remove all of a diseased limb, cutting below the infection and checking the cut surface to ensure it is clean. Ideally, remove a branch right back to where it joins its parent branch, rather than shortening a limb.
Prune for light and air. Pruning an apple tree is the opposite to pruning a hedge. Shearing off it’s top will only produce a thicket of new growth, blocking the light from the lower branches.
Remove inward growing shoots that are crowding the centre of the tree, blocking light and inviting disease.
Remove shaded spurs from the undersides of large branches if thinning. The uppermost spurs that get more sun grow the best fruit.
Avoid very big cuts where possible. As a guide, most pruning cuts should be on branches 1-5cm thick.
Beware of over-pruning. The more you prune a healthy established tree, the more vigorously it grows. Hard pruning results in strong upright branches that crowd the tree and inhibit fruiting. As a rule of thumb, remove no more than a fifth of the canopy each winter.
For over vigorous trees that give too much leafy growth at the expense of fruit, summer pruning (in addition to winter pruning) can help to reduce vigour. Remove the most vigorous laterals to divert the tree’s energy back into fruiting.
To rejuvenate an old neglected tree, remove older branches over a few years, as sudden severe pruning can shock the tree into over-vigorous growth.