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 hanging 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 on how to prune your apple and other fruit trees in your garden.
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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.
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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.
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.
Apples, pears and quinces (pome fruits)
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Standard apple trees - those with a central trunk - should be pruned when the tree is dormant in winter. Ideally between November and early March. Trained apple trees, like espaliers and fans, should be pruned in summer.
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.
When you're pruning, aim to create an open goblet shape in the canopy. Only remove about a third of the branches, including those that grow towards the centre of the goblet, crossing, diseased and damaged branches. This will encourage new growth and allow the air and sunlight to penetrate the branches.
Trained fruit trees and or overgrown trees can be pruned in the summer to maintain shape.
When: November to early March.
General tips: see our guide to winter pruning apples and pears.
Plums, cherries, peaches and apricots (stone fruits)
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Once plum trees have established (about 3 years old) they can be pruned in summer, from June onwards.
Plum trees, along with cherries, peaches and apricots are all plants from the genus Prunus and are best pruned lightly in the summer. Carefully prune out the centre of the canopy to create an open goblet shape. Only take about one-third of the branches out and remove crossing ranchers and those growing inwards towards the centre. Also, remove any shoots or buds growing from the base of the trunk.
Summer pruning encourages your tree to produce higher fruit crops, allows the air and light into the centre of the tree canopy (which helps fruits to stay healthy and ripen) and stops your trees from 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)
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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.