Pruning an apple tree can be a daunting prospect, but try not to give into your fear. Planting a tree and walking away to leave it to its own devices is not advisable. Trees that are not pruned will produce less fruit over time and the branches will become congested and diseased. Pruning does not need to be complicated. Taking time to understand the theory behind it certainly helps. It’s also useful to bear in mind the number 3. You’ll be surprised how often it turns up when you are making your pruning decisions.
The purpose of pruning in the early years of a tree’s life is to create a good structure of framework branches. These support the smaller side branches that will eventually produce the fruit.
To train a one or two-year-old tree into a standard with a 2 metre clear stem it is necessary to let it grow to about 3 metres in height. The top is cut off to just above a bud at approximately the 2 metre mark. This is carried out in the winter. The following spring, three shoots should develop from the three topmost buds.
These shoots are allowed to develop and are themselves pruned back to about a third of their length to an outward, downward facing bud the following winter. This will encourage the development of new branches and spurs and maintain a good shape.
Forming the trunk
In the first winter – usually at planting time – any side shoots, or feathers, should be cut back to three buds. In the second and subsequent winters, previously pruned feathers are cut back to the trunk and new feathers are cut back to three buds. This process of progressively shortening and removing side shoots encourages the stem to thicken and build a strong trunk.
Controlling the size of the tree
Where branches have become too long, cut these out completely either to the main trunk or, preferably, to a lower, wider angled, outward facing branch. This branch should be one-third the diameter of the branch being removed.
It is good practice not to remove more than a third of the canopy in younger, more vigorous trees. [In old declining trees this should be restricted to 25%.]