Apple tree 'Discovery' and when to prune apple trees

When to prune apple trees and pear trees

Knowing how to prune apple and pear fruit trees is vital if you have them in the garden. Here John Hoyland takes us through the simple pruning techniques to ensure fruiting trees and shrubs give their best harvest. Photography Gavin Kingcome

Fruit trees can be left unpruned, but to get tasty, easy-to-harvest fruit from a tree apple trees and pear trees need to be looked after and pruned properly.

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Deadheading roses
© Gavin Kingcome

How to prune apple trees and pear trees

On apples and pears trees, most fruit grows from short woody shoots known as spurs. A few apple tree cultivars are ‘tip bearers’, that is to say the fruit grows from the tips of two or three-year-old shoots. Occasionally, as with the apple ‘Discovery’ (above), fruit grows on the apple tree from both spurs and tips. Looking at where flowers or apple and pears appear along a stem will tell you whether your tree is a tip or spur-bearing cultivar. The principle behind how and when to prune established apple and pear trees is to encourage the replacement of old growth with new, healthy shoots.

© Gavin Kingcome

For apple and pear trees that are spur-bearers

  • Shorten each leader branch (the main branches that are growing outwards and upwards) on the apple tree by about a third of the previous year’s growth.
  • Cut just above a bud that is pointing in the direction you want the stem to grow in.
  • Leaf and stem buds are smaller and thinner than fruiting buds. Cut back any young side shoots to three or four buds and, finally, completely remove any vigorous shoots that are growing vertically.

On tip-bearing apple and pear tree varieties

  • Cut each leader and side shoot back to the first bud to encourage more shoots for the following year.
  • Do not prune back shoots that are shorter than 40cm.

When to prune apple and pear trees

Apples and pears should be pruned during the winter. All of this work should be done during the winter. In general, pears grow from older wood than apples and so should be pruned much more lightly.

Can you save neglected apple trees and pear trees?

Apple and pear trees that have been ignored and not pruned can be rescued from neglect and will quickly start producing fruit again. Wait until the end of winter (late January or early February) and begin by removing any branches that are dead, split, cracked or in any way damaged, followed by any branches that are crossing towards the centre of the tree. If the tree is congested in the centre, remove enough of the branches to let light and air into the middle of the tree. Finally, thin out groups of spurs by cutting them right back to the branch, leaving about 25cm between spurs. All of this will be a shock to the tree, so do not prune it at all the following year.

Removing large branches from apple and pear trees

Remove large branches in two stages
Remove large branches from apples and pears in two stages
© Gavin Kingcome
  • The weight of large apple and pear branches will make them tear into the trunk, damaging the tree, if you try to remove them in a single cut. Do the job in two stages.
  • Make a cut about a third of the way through the underside of the branch you are removing, about 25cm from the apple tree trunk.
  • Follow this with a second cut from the top of the branch, adjacent to the first cut, but further away from the trunk.
  • Be careful when the branch falls away – they are always far heavier than they appear.
  • You can then saw off the remaining stump.
  • If there is a swollen ‘collar’ where the stump joins the apple or pear tree trunk, saw close to the outer edge of this collar.
  • If there is no collar, cut parallel to the trunk, following the line of the trunk.
  • In both cases you should make a single, clean cut. Within a few months the wound made by the cut will callous over.

In the past ‘wound dressings’ were painted on to the wood exposed by cutting to stop it drying out and protect it from insects and diseases. You can still buy these products but they are unnecessary – in fact, they could even seal in any disease that is on the cut. A healthy apple or pear tree should be able to heal wounds itself. I have never used any wound paints and have never had a problem with diseased wounds.

Wound dressings are unneccessary
Wound dressings are unneccessary
© Gavin Kingcome

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© Andrew Montgomery

When to prune plum trees

Prune plum trees, greengages and damsons on a dry summer’s day. These trees are susceptible to a fungal infection called silver-leaf, which causes leaves and shoots to die, and which can lead to the death of the tree. The fungus mostly enters the tree through pruning cuts made on cold, wet, winter days.

Figs and plums

When pruning fig trees, make sure you avoid cutting off the small immature fruits present. These will overwinter and ripen next summer
© Gavin Kingcome

Fig trees are very vigorous plants that quickly become overcrowded, producing lots of beautiful foliage but few fruits. Regularly remove branches causing congestion to allow air and light into the tree. In May or June shorten long side shoots to four or five leaves from the main branch to encourage new fruiting shoots. Figs produce two crops of fruit during the year. The early ones rarely grow large enough to ripen before being damaged by cold and wet. Later fruiting figs are still embryo fruits by the time autumn arrives and overwinter (if the frosts aren’t too heavy) to mature and ripen by the following summer. It’s important, when pruning, not to remove these small immature fruits. Plum, damson and greengage trees require little pruning. Thin out any overcrowded branches and remove dead, damaged ones, as with apples and pears, as an essential part of maintenance.

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Currants and Gooseberries

Blackcurrants produce fruit on new, one-year-old stems; redcurrants and whitecurrants on spurs that grow from old wood. After harvesting the fruit from blackcurrants,  prune the old, thick stems that have fruited down to ground level, leaving the young, paler stems to grow on and produce fruit the following year. During the winter prune the new shoots of white and redcurrants back by about a quarter. Gooseberries require little pruning, but regularly cutting out stems to prevent the shrub becoming congested will make picking the fruit much easier.