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How To Prune Apple Trees for Prolific Fruit

Pruning apple trees has been described variously as a skill and an art1. Certainly, skill is needed in determining the various factors involved in pruning a tree, and a sense of art is called for in shaping the tree using a succession of pruning skills. Apple trees can be directed to grow along a fence line, espalier-fashion or singly in an orchard. They even grow wild across the New England states. Regardless of their location, they all have one thing in common: they thrive and produce more fruit when properly pruned.

Pruning season

The key to a prolific apple crop is proper pruning

The key to a prolific apple crop is proper pruning

  1. Plan on pruning your apple trees annually when they are dormant, i.e., when the sap has stopped running.
  2. The optimum time for pruning some varieties of apple trees is from late February to late April.

Pruning principles2

  1. Cut branches at the bark ridge and branch collar. These are the intersections of the branch and the tree trunk. The bark ridge is at the top of the intersection and the branch collar is at the bottom of the branch where it meets the trunk. These are important for proper healing of the cut.
  2. Prune weak and dead branches from the center of the tree to promote fresh air circulation and sunlight penetration.
  3. Resist the urge to prune more than one third of the tree canopy. This helps to minimize the growth of small shoots that rob the tree of needed nutrients.
  4. To encourage the growth of the tree upward, trim branches just in front of the terminal bud, i.e., the last bud on the end of the branch.
  5. Trimming a lateral branch in front of a bud causes the tree growth to extend outward rather than upward.
  6. Trim a branch in front of a bud that faces in the direction you want the new growth to occur.
  7. Cut away limbs that present a narrow angle to the tree trunk. They are weak, may develop bark inclusions, and could break from snow load or excess apple weight.
  8. When branches cross or rub against one another they should be cut out. Also cut away drooping or low-hanging branches and limbs.
  9. Remove all upright sprouts or shoots, commonly called water sprouts.


Clean all your pruning tools after use on each tree to prevent passing viruses and fungi from tree to tree. You can use a special chemical designed for such use or a solution of bleach and water. Even washing them in hot water and detergent is better than doing nothing. If you do use hot water and detergent, be careful to dry the tools thoroughly and lubricate them well.

  1. Sunset Western Garden Book © 1995
  2. http://efotg.nrcs.usda.gov/references/public/VT/JS645VT_AppleTreeRelease_FillableForm.pdf
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