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Apple Trees - Pruning

Commonly asked question(s):

- How do I prune a grafted M26 apple tree?
- How do I prune dwarf apple trees?
- How do I train my apple and quince trees so they grow sideways?

How do I prune a grafted M26 apple tree?

Pruning apple trees normally begins immediately after planting. Remove the central stem to just above the highest side branch. For the following 3 years, prune only the tips of the remaining main branches by one third in winter. Aim for about six main branches which will form the frame of your tree, with fruiting sub branches growing off of them. From the fourth year, some sub branches can be pruned out at the union where they join the main branch, to allow new sub branches to take their place.

However, if you are dealing with overcrowded mature trees then you may need to do some renovation pruning to restore the tree to a nice open shape and improve air circulation and light penetration. But be careful not to remove more than 25% of the canopy per year. This type of pruning should also be undertaken in winter. First remove all damaged, dead, crossing and diseased branches. Then remove any crowded branches to create a nice, even framework. Once you have thinned out the unwanted branches, you can begin a regular pruning regime, removing older fruiting spurs so that younger ones can replace them. You will need to spread this renovation process over several years though so it will require a bit of patience and may also reduce your crop initially.

How do I prune dwarf apple trees?

We assume that we are talking about a dwarf tree which has 2 different varieties of apple grafted onto one rootstock such as our family apple tree.

Apples should be pruned during the winter months while the plants are dormant. Immediately after planting, trim back the grafted main branches by a third, always making the cut just above an outward facing bud.

For the following 3 years, prune the tips of the main branches and sub branches by one third in winter. Aim to develop the main branches to form the permanent framework of your tree, with fruiting sub branches growing off of them. From the fourth year, some sub branches can be pruned out at the union where they join the main branches, to allow new sub branches to develop and take their place. The sub branches will produce the best quality fruit.

We know this sounds complicated but there are lots of useful diagrams online and you are essentially pruning to create a ‘bush’ tree. Just bear in mind that when pruning ‘family apple trees’ you will need to treat each of the grafted stems individually as the different varieties are likely to have different growth rates. Remember to remove any suckers that develop at the base of the tree each year as well.

How do I prune dwarf apple trees?

We have assumed you mean training your trees as an espalier (a main trunk with neatly pruned horizontal branches on either side). This is fine for apple trees but quinces are better trained in a fan shape as they don’t respond well to such restrictive pruning. It’s also worth checking that your apple tree is spur-bearing (bears fruit all along the branches) rather than tip-bearing as you wouldn’t get very many apples on an espaliered tip-bearing tree!

  • 1.  Firstly you’ll need to put in a sturdy support framework. To train the apple tree, place wire or bamboo poles horizontally
       between two posts, spacing the wires or poles 45-60cm apart.
  • 2.  This winter, you’ll need to cut the leading shoot of your apple tree back to a bud about 5cm above the first wire. Make the
       cut just above the bud.
  • 3.  In the summer, a new leading shoot will grow which you need to tie in. Also choose two strong side shoots to tie in
       either side of the trunk, along your first set of wires. Prune back any other side branches to two or three leaves.
  • 4.  Once the tree has become dormant again next year, cut the new leader back to a bud about 5cm above the second wire
       and completely remove all the side shoots that you shortened in the summer (leave your two selected side shoots
       on the first wire).
  • 5.  Again in the summer tie in the new leader that will be produced, and two more side shoots along the second wire.
       Remember to shorten any other shoots.
  • 6.  Continue the process until you have three or four tiers. The branches on the first wire will start fruiting before the
       topmost ones have finished developing. During the summer, prune new shoots on the lower branches back to three or
       four leaves to maintain a neat shape and help develop fruiting spurs.
  • 7.  Remove the leading shoot once you have enough tiers on your espalier. Only winter prune your espalier when you need
        to remove congested fruit buds (spurs).

  • For your Quince tree it would be better trained as a fan as this is not so restrictive on growth:
  • 1.  Prepare a support framework as for apples. Select two side shoots, one on either side of the trunk and growing about
       30cm from the ground. Cut out the leader just above the two side shoots.
  • 2.  Shorten the two side shoots to about 40cm length and tie them to bamboo poles at a 40? angle (so that you have a
       shallow V shape). Cut off any other side shoots on the main trunk.
  • 3.  In the summer tie in any well placed shoots that develop, aiming to create a fan shape spreading across the framework.
       The aim is to fill in the centre of the fan last. Only remove any crossing, badly placed or excessively vigorous shoots.
  • 4.  As for apple espaliers, in the summer prune new shoots on the established branches back to three leaves.
  • 5.  As the quince matures, older or congested fruiting spurs can be pruned out during the winter.