Gardening tips, Plants,

Pruning Apple Trees — A Step-by-Step Guide

Apple trees need younger wood to maintain high, good-quality fruit yields. Find out when and how to prune your apple tree for optimal results!

11 MIN 08 Oct
Last update: 05 Oct 2023
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Apple trees are relatively fast-growing plants, and they can quickly grow out of control. And typically, the bigger the tree, the lower the quality of the fruit. However, it’s not really the size of the tree that dictates the fruit quality; it’s the age of the branches that bear them.

Table of contents:
  • How does an apple tree grow?
  • Types of apple trees found in the UK
  • Why should you prune your apple tree?
  • How to prune an apple tree
  • When to prune an apple tree
  • Pruning apple trees in winter
  • Pruning apple trees in summer
  • Which branches do I prune on an apple tree?
  • Rejuvenation pruning
  • Where do I make the cut?
  • How to prune an apple tree: a step-by-step plan
  • Which tools do I need when pruning apple trees?
  • Apple tree pruning aftercare
  • FAQs

So, pruning your apple tree contributes to the health and productivity of the tree because better fruit comes from new wood. Older branches may produce lots of fruit, but the quality will likely suffer. 

This article is all about how to get the best out of your apple tree through pruning. We’ll explain why and when you should be pruning apple trees and provide a step-by-step guide that even a novice can follow. 

Ready? Let’s go!   

How does an apple tree grow?

Apple trees grow in a variety of ways, depending on the variety. But, typically, they grow with predominantly horizontal branches. 

However, you can differentiate between the varieties by the growth shape: half-stem, tall, column-shaped, pyramid-shaped, or shrub. 

So, before pruning your apple tree, determine which variety you have because it dictates the shape you should aim for when cutting it back. 

Types of apple trees found in the UK

Fallstaff apples on the tree
Red Falstaff produces a delightful, crisp, sweet apple.

Many apple tree varieties thrive in the UK, which is why we produce some of the best ciders in the world. Apple trees thrive in our temperate climate, most producing fruit regardless of the quality of the seasons. 

The top five apple varieties in the UK (according to fruit tree grower Chris Bowers) are:

  1. Red Falstaff — a delicious, disease-resistant variety, cropping without the need for a partner tree. 
  2. Greensleeves — a lovely garden tree offering abundant mid-season fruit harvested from late September to November.
  3. Idared — this frost-resistant tree produces abundant yields and reliably crops yearly. Its apples can remain on the tree until January without rotting, so this is an excellent variety for year-round apple lovers. 
  4. Redsleeves — a long-season fruiter, this compact tree is a reliable cropper and extremely frost-resistant. A self-fertiliser, this tree doesn’t require a companion plant. 
  5. James Grieve — a super-hardy cropper from Scotland, great for eating and cooking. With golden, yellow fruits that offer a sweet/sharp dessert flavour. 

Why should you prune your apple tree?

Pruning is the act of cutting off old wood from a plant, keeping the branches young and maintaining the plant’s virility. So, by establishing a regular pruning regime, you’ll keep your tree healthy, fruitful, and the right size and shape for your garden. 

Trees that get too large are likely to over-produce, making the whole crop poor quality and susceptible to disease. So, thinning out the crop early in the season prevents branches from snapping or bending under the ripe fruit’s weight and ensures delicious large fruit come harvest time. 

Finally, removing the dead wood from the plant helps improve air circulation around the foliage, preventing disease. Remove inward-growing branches that rub against each other, permittingh sunlight to penetrate into the plant — essential for ripening and keeping the tree healthy. 

How to prune an apple tree

For most effective cropping, maintain a tree with a single distinct trunk, with branches that grow at a 45-degree angle. So, when pruning young trees, maintain a single trunk with no more than five side branches.

Avoid too many side shoots from each branch when the plant is young to maintain the single trunk — this way, the plant can distribute its energy evenly for better cropping.

Garden doctor Louis says:

Fruiting happens on younger wood — between one and four years old. While old wood can still produce apples, they’ll be of poorer quality.

When to prune an apple tree

Avoid pruning your apple tree during wet weather and frost — if the cuts remain wet for too long, they become prone to fungal diseases. Severe frost will hinder a plant’s recovery after pruning. 

The best time to prune an apple tree depends on its variety and age. However, in general, prune in late winter (avoiding frost) or early spring (before blossoming), between November and early March. 

This is the resting period for the tree, and pruning during its dormancy promotes healthy stimulation come spring. Prune before new leaf growth — this also ensures you can see the general shape of the tree. 


It’s better to prune a young tree in late summer or early autumn once the active growing period is over. This helps the tree settle and prepare for winter. Developing a regular pruning regime in the first three or four years of an apple tree’s life is essential to help it formulate robust roots.

You can cut an older tree back more than a younger tree — an older tree may even require a summer pruning to maintain the plant’s shape and prevent it from over-producing. 

Pruning apple trees in winter

Winter pruning takes place between November and early March. This is the time to cut away old, thick branches, introducing a better shape to the dormant tree. 

It’s important to differentiate between flower and leaf buds. Leave flower buds intact and remove leaf buds. If you’re unsure which is which, wait until spring — flower buds go green before they burst into bloom. 

Pruning apple trees in summer

Cutting back a water shoot on an apple tree
Cut back the twiggy water shoots to focus the tree’s energy on producing fruit

While the principal pruning window is during the tree’s winter dormancy, you can prune a trained apple tree in summer just to tidy up stray branches. 

The best time for summer pruning is mid-to-late August. Look for twiggy branches that spout upwards — these are sometimes called “water shoots” and often occur due to a particularly heavy winter pruning. 

These twiggy water shoots grow vigorously but don’t produce blossoms and can easily cause overcrowding. So, these should be your target — they drain the tree of the energy it could use to produce its fruit.

Which branches do I prune on an apple tree?

Apple buds bursting into blossom
Flowering buds turn green before bursting into bloom. Photo by J Wberg on Pixabay

As mentioned, remove thick, overgrown branches during the winter pruning. Summer pruning is about removing those energy-sapping water shoots. 

If you’re unsure which branches to remove, err on the side of caution. It’s better to prune a little than not at all, but it’s quite easy to prune back too hard.

You’ll develop confidence with practice. Here are some tips in the meantime:

Rejuvenation pruning

This hard pruning method removes old, weak, or diseased wood. Remember, fruit grows on new wood, so you want to keep the tree’s branches young and vibrant, and you do this by removing the dead wood. 

So, if you haven’t pruned for a while or if this is the first time, look for brittle, dried wood and remove it. Cut it back to the nearest side shoot to the stem. New wood feels smoother and hydrated, while old wood feels rough and dry. 

Rejuvenation pruning can help increase the tree’s yield the following year and improve the structure of the tree. 

However, avoid cutting back more than 20% of the tree’s overall mass — it will affect fruit production the following year. 

Maintenance pruning

As the name suggests, maintenance pruning helps maintain the health and shape of the tree and is part of the regular pruning regime. 

Again, remove old and diseased wood, and use this cut to maintain the tree’s shape and appearance. 

Shape pruning

This is where you train the tree into a spherical or cone-shaped structure — merely for aesthetics. Alternatively, you can “shape prune” a large tree to keep it smaller. 

Where do I make the cut?

Always cut an apple branch either:

  • To the base of the branch
  • To a side shoot, or
  • To a fruiting bud

Never cut halfway between side shoots, leaving a stub — this will rot and promote disease. 

Focus on keeping the middle of the tree’s branches clear — cut back branches that rub against each other. 

Cut a maximum of 20% of the tree’s unpruned mass — if you cut back more, it will put its energy back into growth rather than producing fruit. 

How to prune an apple tree: a step-by-step plan

Here’s a complete guide to pruning apple trees:

  • Preparation — keep your tree disease-free by only cutting with clean tools. You may need a range of devices, including sharp pruning shears and a branch saw, so always treat them with a disinfecting spray before cutting. 
  • Formulate a plan — step back and look at the tree from as many angles as possible. This helps you assess the areas of greatest need. Look for dead wood and twigginess — these should be your focus. 
  • Keep standing back — each time you cut a branch, take a step back and look at how it affects the tree’s shape. This is important because you can’t always see the effect of a cut when you’re close to the plant. 
  • Remove dead and twiggy wood — remove branches that crowd the tree’s centre and those that rub together. These prevent air circulation and can lead to disease. 
  • Thinning the tree — think about how air circulates around the centre of the tree. Remove inward-growing branches and those that crowd around the trunk. 
  • Shaping the tree — cut the tips of non-fruiting branches to maintain good shape. Take the tree’s natural growth pattern into account, ensuring the tree retains a good, open structure. 

Which tools do I need when pruning apple trees?

A person cutting a thick branch of an apple tree with a saw
You’ll need a saw to cut back thicker branches

Always have the right tools. Here’s a list:

  • Sharp pruning shears — the emphasis here is on the “sharp”. Blunt tools will damage the tree, while sharp blades leave less of a wound. Use handheld pruning shears for smaller branches. 
  • Branch loppers — these are longer-armed shears with a sharp blade against a blunt edge. They provide greater leverage for thicker branches. 
  • Branch saw — you’ll need these for thick branches. Again, ensure the blade remains sharp.
  • Ladder — you’ll need to reach the top branches, so a ladder will be handy. However, always ensure it’s stable — get someone to help if you’re uncertain. 
  • Gloves — pruning is sharp work, and it’s easy to cut yourself. So, wear thick, clean gardening gloves.
  • Disinfecting tool spray — clean tools are essential to protect the tree’s health. So always clean your tools with a disinfectant before and after pruning. 

Not sure which pruning tools to buy? Check out our expert’s guide to choosing the right pruning tools

Apple tree pruning aftercare

Lots of red apples on the tree
A good pruning regime guarantees a bountiful fruit yield. Photo by Ralph on Pixabay

After pruning, your tree may need some love and attention to help it bounce back. Here are our top aftercare tips:

  • Water — it’s not usually necessary to water an established apple tree unless there’s a long period of drought. However, watering the tree after pruning helps it recover and promotes new shoot growth. 
  • Fertilise — cutting back can deprive the tree of its stored nutrients, so apply a good general fertiliser suitable for apple trees after pruning to boost it. 
  • Inspect for pests and disease — hopefully, you’ve already removed the diseased wood, but it’s easy to miss signs of pests. Detecting pests and diseases early is crucial in preventing long-term damage. Always act fast. 
  • Mulch — applying mulch around the tree’s base helps it retain moisture at the roots and reduces the possibility of weeds. Use organic matter such as wood chips, tree bark, or homemade compost. 


When can I prune my apple tree?

The best time to prune an established apple tree is during its dormancy, from November to March. However, avoid pruning when the weather’s wet or frosty, as this can leave the cuts susceptible to disease. Prune on a crisp, dry day when there’s no scheduled rain. 

Can I prune my apple tree in summer?

Most apple trees prefer a winter pruning, although it depends on the variety. If pruning in summer, focus on the “water shoots” — twiggy branches that grow upward. Cut these back as they don’t produce fruit and drain the tree of energy. 

How far can I cut an apple tree back?

The general rule for apple tree pruning is never to cut more than 20% of the tree’s overall pre-pruned mass. Over-pruning can result in twigginess and a poor fruit yield. 

Any questions?

I hope I’ve answered all your questions about pruning apple trees, but if you have questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Alternatively, you can find all the tips and advice you’re likely to need in our comprehensive Help & Advice section.

Thanks for reading!  

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