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When to prune apple and other fruit trees

It’s deep winter and I haven’t really felt like going out into the garden. It’s damp and brown and doesn’t look very inviting. The cold, short days have seemed like a good excuse to stay indoors.

But today it’s bright and sunny and I feel inspired. Succulent, green spring shoots are emerging from piles of rotting leaves that cover my borders and the snowdrops are out. It’s a good day for cutting and tidying. And my garden really needs it, especially the fruit trees.

Throughout the winter, I’ve been watching them from the window, droplets of water dangling from their dormant branches. The Bramley apple in my garden is leggy and shapeless - it needs some help. But when is the right time to prune fruit trees? Here are some general tips.

Pruning apple opens up the canopy to sun and air promoting flower and fruit production. (Photo: NPL/WTML)
Pruning apple opens up the canopy to sun and air promoting flower and fruit production. (Photo: NPL/WTML)
Plum and other stone fruit trees are generally pruned in the summer. (Photo: P. Sterry/WTML)
Plum and other stone fruit trees are generally pruned in the summer. (Photo: P. Sterry/WTML)

When to prune fruit trees?

Fruit tree pruning can generally be carried out in winter, spring or summer, depending on what your end goal is.

Winter pruning

Mainly for apples, pears and quince. Winter pruning encourages vigorous growth. So if you want new shoots, and more flowers and therefore fruits, prune in winter. Pruning at this time of year, when the leaves have fallen, gives you a chance to see the overall shape and structure of your tree.

Spring and summer pruning

Mainly for stone fruits or if your tree is too big, and you don’t want to encourage vigorous growth. Also good for trained apples and pears.

It doesn’t trigger the tree into producing lots of new growth so it's good for trees you want to keep small and for dwarf trees. It’s also a chance to remove diseased or dead wood.

Because spring and summer pruning is carried out after the tree has started to develop fruits (known as setting fruits), you can avoid cutting the branches with fruits on.

Autumn pruning

It’s better to avoid autumn pruning as this can stimulate new growth at a time when the tree is getting ready to go into dormancy.

Make the perfect cut with folding secateurs.

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Apples, pears and quinces (pome fruits)

In general, pruning of apples (Malus species), pears (Pyrus species) and quince (Cydonia oblongata) is best carried out in winter. Quince fruits are produced on the new season’s growth so winter pruning can be used to promote new shoots and a better fruit crop. 

You can also prune over grown apples and pears in summer.

When: November to early March.

General tips: see our guide to winter pruning apples and pears.

Plums, cherries, peaches and apricots (stone fruits)

These fruits are all plants from the genus Prunus and are best pruned lightly in the summer.

Summer pruning encourages your tree to produce higher fruit crops and stops your trees becoming too big.

When: ideally in spring and summer, either before or after flowering. 

General tips: remove damaged, dead and diseased branches and focus on keeping the tree a manageable shape and size. Make cuts to where there is fruit.

Mulberry (Morus nigra)

If you’re lucky enough to have a mature mulberry tree it won’t need much pruning. Only prune light else you’ll shock the tree into so much growth it may not be able to support itself. Mulberries also tend to bleed sap from cuts which is minimised in winter.

When: winter. The RHS recommends pruning mulberries about a month after the last leaves have fallen.

General tips: fruits are produced on branches that grew the previous year, which is why only light pruning is needed. As with other trees, you can cut off dead, damaged and diseased branches.

Make the perfect cut with folding secateurs.

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