Newly planted apple trees need regular, yearly pruning so they develop into a tree which will produce the largest crops of fruit. They are pruned so that the maximum amount of sunlight reaches the greatest number of branches. Prune them in late winter, before the buds open. Pruning during winter encourages the vigorous growth of stems and leaves the following season at the expense of fruit production, so it is important not to prune too heavily.
Step 1: Unbranched tree seedlings are called “whips.” Cut the unbranched whip of your apple tree seedling when planting. Make the cut, called “heading off,” directly above a bud about 24 to 40 inches above ground level, depending on how high or low you want the lowermost branches to be.
Step 2: The following spring, prune the one-year-old apple tree by selecting 3 to 4 branches to become the first layer of whorled scaffold branches. Make them evenly spaced around the trunk in the general area of the heading off cut you made when you planted the tree the previous spring. Remove all other branches. Pinch out all flower buds during this growing season, to encourage strong vegetative growth.
Step 3: Head off the central leader in the tree’s second year, about 24 to 30 inches above the first whorl of branches. Remove all of the side branches between the heading cut and the lower whorl of branches. Allow 3 to 4 scaffold branches to grow at the site of the upper cut, evenly spaced around the trunk, and remove all others. Cut back the branches in the lower whorl by a third of their previous season’s growth. Remove all flower buds in early spring.
Step 4: Prune your apple tree in its third year in your yard in the same manner as you pruned it in its second year (see the previous step). Cut back the central leader at a point 24 to 30 inches above the second whorl of branches. Select 3 to 4 branches near this heading off cut and remove all other branches between this top cut and the second set of whorls (directly beneath the cut). Remove all branches between the first and second set of whorls. Cut off about a third of the previous season’s growth on the whorled branches. Remove flower buds in early spring.
Step 5: Prune your apple tree in its fourth year in your yard following the procedure for pruning in its third year, as outlined in the previous step ( see Step 4).
Step 6: Beginning in your apple tree’s fifth year, prune off water spouts and thin the fruit on the oldest whorls. Remove developing fruit from the central leader and from the topmost whorls of branches to prevent the limbs from bending.
Apple Tree Pruning Tips: Beginning in the tree’s first year and continuing through it’s fourth year, spread the crotches of the branches to increase the angle that they are growing at from the main trunk. Use toothpicks, clothespins or pieces of lumber to hold the branches in place. An angle of greater than 45 degrees is ideal. This will make the branch stronger, as branches growing off the main trunk at small angles tend to break under the weight of ripening fruit.
Remove water spouts, along with broken, diseased or dead branches any time of year.
Apple trees should be pruned into a “central leader” that produces a Christmas tree shape. This ensures that adequate sunlight reaches the maximum number of branches, and will increase fruit production.
Never remove more than a quarter of the tree’s leaves when pruning during the growing season.