To get the fullest and tastiest fruit from your apple tree you will be required to do some selective pruning. The advantages of pruning are in the quality of the fruit and controlling the shape and the size of the tree – the latter can be vital in smaller gardens.
By pruning you are attempting to limit the number of side shoots which are produced in the current year to a similar number as those produced last year. This will produce a crop of apples for the current year while supplying a certain amount for next year.
When to Prune
A tree should be pruned immediately after planting and during winter – when the tree is dormant. For smaller bushes and cordons pruning should happen in November and December.
In the first year (assuming the tree is a year old) you should check there are at least four buds on the tree. Choose a point above these and cut off the top half of the trunk with a sharp pair of shears.
Two year old trees should be pruned from December through to February; you should prune all shoots back by about a third. Cut just past an outward facing bud so that it may provide a different facing shoot for the following year.
You can follow the same rule for a three and four year old tree, remembering to cut close and past the bud. Once a tree has reached this age it should be considered to be a “mature,” tree. From now on pruning should consist of keep the centre of the tree as empty as possible and shaping the tree to your particular tastes. It has been known, for example, to make a tree bring its branches lower so that the shorter among us would be able to reach!
General Tree Maintenance
Each year you should prune a tree from December through to February and remove any diseased or dead branches. Apples grow on the previous year’s growth – so make sure that you leave around 50% of the previous year’s growth each time you prune.
If you left an apple tree to its own devices you would have a large crop of quite small apples. As apples grow close together, clustering, you will be required to remove a few of the small apples. The central apple is usually misshapen and not particularly flavoursome – this should be the first to go. Along with this you should remove any diseased or unhealthy looking apples.
If your fruit ends up looking too heavy then your attempt to thin out the surrounding branches did not work. There should be no less than four inches between clusters of apples. If this is not so then you should be prepared to either do some emergency pruning or emergency catching when the branch breaks!
With this in mind you should be able to effectively prune for large and healthy apples.