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I am often asked about pruning apple trees as it seems complicated to many people, but actually it is one of my favourite jobs in the garden and one I used to love when I was doing my gardening apprenticeship many years ago. Rather like pruning roses or other shrubs there are certain rules to be followed with pruning apple trees and the rest is down to using common sense and the old trick of often stepping back to assess your work and approaching the job with some consideration and caution rather than getting stuck in and regretting any of the more excessive cuts later. As my gardening supervisor used to say, ‘you can’t glue it back on!’
Apple trees are grown primarily for their fruit, but I love them for their flower and for attracting bees and wildlife as well as their classic shape and beauty. I have seen too many beautiful trees butchered by careless and inexperienced hands, but although they do need attention and annual pruning in the main, they pay back this care by giving the garden beautiful flowers and later on fruit. I think they are worth the effort.
The first thing to look at is the general shape of your tree. They should be roughly goblet shape and the old saying used to be that you should be able to throw a football through the middle of the tree. This was so that plenty of light and air could get to all of the branches, ensuring a disease free and productive tree. Nowadays many domestic apple trees are for ornament as well as for their fruit and so the pruning is practical as well as aesthetic.
Most apple trees are spur-bearing which means that they fruit on wood which is at least three years old and the short shoots which look like knobbly stems are called spurs. There is also a small number of trees which are tip-bearing which will require a different pruning approach altogether so it is important to know which of these your trees are. This information is easily accessible from a multitude of gardening books including any by the RHS. All of these trees vary hugely in their cropping ability, some cultivars producing extravagantly heavy amounts of apples and others hardly any. Experimentation and know-how will help you to learn the best way to handle your own trees.
The best time to prune is from January until March. The tools for this job are some sharp secateurs; some sharp loppers and a pruning saw, this can be a small folding saw with a serrated edge. The main thing is that the blades are all sharp to create clean cuts. Firstly remove any dead, diseased or damaged branches, or any that are badly crossing over each other and rubbing. If the tree has been neglected you might notice that there are a lot of long upright whippy branches, these all need to be taken down to around five or six buds. Basically by pruning lateral stems this stimulates the production of fruit buds near to the base. Weaker or thinner stems can be cut back to two or three buds. Any of the leaders, in other words the branch ends which can also be long and whippy, cut back by a third of the seasons previous growth, you can normally tell this by looking for the previous year’s cut, or if the tree has not been pruned for years you will need to completely renovate the tree and this takes time and knowledge. It could be a good time to bring in the professionals if this is the case and there are many good tree specialists in the Bath area. If you do not keep on top of annual pruning of apple trees they will start biennial bearing, that is producing heavy crops of apples every other year. For all the toil and labour that these trees need, they give back in spades and are more than worth the effort needed to keep them in good health and condition.