Apple Tree Pruning Made Simple

Pruning apple trees (pruning anything!) can fill people with dread.

But don’t let it worry you – pruning is great fun!

At this time of year it is a fantastic moment to get your woolly hat on, grab your pruning tools and go and sort out the fruit trees in your garden.

But what steps do you have to take? Here is our simple, step by step guide, to apple tree pruning in winter…

Where Do I Start?

You start by making sure you have sharp, decent secateurs, the are clean and disinfected.

The secateurs can be red-handled Felco, or our preferred choice the red and white handled Japanese ones…

Secateurs whetstone gift set

Now you have sharp tools to work with, that have been disinfected with a little solution of diluted bleach, you can answer the next question…

Why Am I Pruning This Plant?

Pruning should not be done for the sake of pruning, it should be done for a desired outcome. In this case, with your apple tree, decide what you want from it.

If you want a tree that stays in its allotted space in your garden, and don’t much care for its fruit, then you can just prune it however you like – as long as you cut it to the size you want, you win! You don’t want the fruit so be as violent as you like!

If you do want an apple tree that produces fruit, as well as a tree that isn’t too big or taking over your garden, then keep reading.

The steps we detail below will help you – and now you are completely prepared with the right tools and understand why you are pruning – we can see how to get those apples and have a lovely looking tree!

Hey Apple! Where Do I Make the First Cut?

To make the first cut, you need to seek the following branches – these are the ones that can be called the three D’s!

Look at your tree and start to cut away any branch that is:




Those are the 3 D’s.

Most apple trees will have some unhealthy stems, so this will immediately make the tree look better.

It is a simple way to begin the work and, if it turns out that is all you do due to time or confidence in your pruning technique, then it will have had a positive effect on the tree.

(Please note: if you are French you will of course be looking for the 3 M’s – mort, malade et mourant!)

Now you have cleared a little of the tree, you will hopefully be feeling warmed up and a little more confident with the sharp, shiny steel blades in your hand.

What now?

Breaking Apical Dominance

Woah! If you haven’t heard this phrase before, we’re sorry – hope it hasn’t put you off?

It has? Okay, well go make a cup of tea and listen to this… it will calm you down for a bit…

Back? Ready to go again…?


‘Apical dominance’ is when the branches of your tree spend their energy climbing up, towards the sunlight. To break that dominance is just a way of telling the branch – stop growing upwards, and start concentrating on producing fruit.

Funny phrase, simple idea.

How do you break the apical dominance and tell the plant it needs to start producing flowers and fruit? Prune the end. Look at the tip of the branch, trace back towards the trunk and note when the growth changes from a young, fresh, thinner looking wood to something older.

See that change? On some branches it might come 2 feet down. On others, perhaps 2 inches. But when you have found it, that level fresh growth from last year, prune about a third of it off from the tip.

A good, clean cut, angled away from a bud.

Repeat this ‘tip’ pruning technique on each branch as you go around the apple tree, always reducing that new growth by a third.

See anything else that might be dead? Or diseased? Cut it out now, if you missed it earlier, and step back and look at your apple tree….

Is the plant looking better? Does the shape seem to be in balance? If not, perhaps you need to take a bit more off one side. Do so now, again, making that lovely clean cut.

Look now at each branch, but this time closer towards the trunk rather than at the ends.

Thinning Your Apple Tree

It is time to thin your apple tree. This phrase always springs into mind when pruning fruit trees;

A Bird Should Be Able To Fly Through It.

Is a bird capable of flying between the branches of your tree?

(Take this with a pinch of salt please – if you live in East Africa and have eagles and vultures sitting in your trees, then don’t prune so hard that you will allow these enormous raptors fly between your branches. These are not the birds we mean when we say a bird should be able to fly through it….!)

Now thinning is simple – look at the branch and note where you see a ‘spur’. This is where the fruit will grow, and will look like a plump, furry bud. Gently feel it with your finger – this is what you want more of on your tree, in order to get fruit, and next year you will encourage more of these because you have broken the apical dominance.

And that bit was easy, wasn’t it?

So find these spurs along each branch – if you see some that are congested, that look like they are growing in to each other or won’t leave enough room for fruit to develop – prune them out! This is the thinning part!

Any spurs running along the bottom of the branch, or growing back towards the centre of the tree – probably worth cutting them out – because they may to get enough sun in the summer to make the best tasting fruit.

You will certainly be getting to know your tree by now, looking through each branch and seeing what is actually there. This, by the way, is how to become a great gardener. Look, really look, at the plant.

Has Your Apple Tree Pruning Been A Success?

Take another step back – does the tree look good? Is it balanced? A good height to pick the apples from? Have I left enough ‘spurs’ to give me fruit next year?

If you can answer yes to all of these questions, you have done a good job. If you have cut too hard (or it turns out you have an apple tree where all of the spurs are on the tip, and you have just cut them off – that can be the case, so watch out! Really look at your tree!) then the worst that can happen is that you don’t get any fruit next summer.

But you will be one year more experienced, and have developed your eye for pruning.

Final Words

Grab your secateurs and go have some fun making your apple tree look good.

Life is for enjoying and it is always going to be fun to work in the garden, to work with your hands!

If you have more questions about apple tree pruning, then you can always invite me to teach you in your own garden.


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