Question: I have three apple trees that I planted three years ago. I don’t know how to prune them. Could you give me some guidance on apple tree pruning? When is a good time to prune them?
Answer: Established fruit trees require yearly pruning for best health and maximum fruit production. Regular pruning will also help keep most of the fruit bearing branches within easy reach for harvesting. You can prune anytime from now until they begin new growth.
Stakes or supports should be removed. If more than one main trunk or leader has developed, leave the most upright one and either remove or shorten the others by half or more. Shortened leaders can be developed into side branches if they are in a good location.
The main pruning job on established fruit trees is to thin out some of the extra branches so that more light can reach those which remain. This also reduces the number of fruits somewhat, resulting in larger fruit with better color.
All branches which grow straight up should be removed. All of the branches which grow toward the center of the tree should be removed. Normally, about a third to half of the smallest remaining branches are removed (thinned) back to their origin. Whenever two branches grow into each other or cross, one should be removed.
The outward or horizontal branches should be favored over the more upright branches because they will bear fruit sooner and more abundantly. Branches which bend downward are usually removed (thinned) or shortened (headed). This allows light into the inner parts of the tree.
The center of the tree should have few small branches except spurs. Spurs are the short, twiggy branches where flowers and fruit are produced. Spurs should never be removed.
A number of new, vigorous vertical branches (called suckers or water sprouts) will grow from the trunk and main branches after spring pruning. These are best removed by snapping them off while they are still less than 12 inches and flexible, about the end of May or June. Snapping removes latent buds at the base of the sprouts. If cut off many of these sprouts will regrow a second time.
Extra vigorous side and top branches can also be shortened at the same time. Large branches which grow straight up should also be removed.