How to Prune an Overgrown Apple Tree

Ladder leaning against apple tree
Amy Eckert / Getty Images
  • 01 of 09

    The Main Point Behind Pruning Apple Trees

    How to Prune Apple Trees - Fruiting Spurs
    How to Prune Apple Trees - Fruiting Spurs. Marie Iannotti

    Pruning apple trees brings fear and trepidation to gardeners. Pruning apple trees improves the tree's vigor and fruit production. But it just seems so complicated. Take heart. It is almost impossible to kill a tree by pruning it. And most of the intimidating pruning takes place the first 3 years of an apple tree's life. Conquer that and you're 90% done.

    You want to accomplish 2 things with maintenance pruning of your apple tree

    1. Encourage fruiting spurs
    2. Open the branches so that sunlight and air can reach all the ripening fruit

    Most fruit trees grown in home gardens are spurring types. A spur is a short (3-5") branch where the apple tree flowers and sets fruit. Pruning encourages the tree to grow more of these fruiting spurs by removing competing suckers and unproductive wood.

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  • 02 of 09

    Remove Any Wood that is Unproductive and Attracts Problems

    Apple Tree Pruning - Removing Dead and Diseased Wood
    Apple Tree Pruning - Removing Dead and Diseased Wood. Marie Iannotti

    Start your pruning by removing any dead, damaged or diseased branches. ‚ÄčThe dead wood will be dark or brittle, often with the bark falling away. Diseased wood is often a different color than the other branches. The branch here is damaged and the open wound is an invitation to insects and further disease. You can, and should, prune dead and injured wood at any time of the year.

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  • 03 of 09

    Pruning & Removing Suckers from Apple Tree Branches

    How to Prune Apple Trees - Removing Suckers and Water Sprouts
    How to Prune Apple Trees - Removing Suckers and Water Sprouts. Marie Iannotti

    We prune plants to encourage more growth, but not all growth is welcome. Suckers (branches growing from the base of the tree), whorls (branches that grow from and encircle another branch) and water sprouts (thin branches that usually grow straight upright) are never going to bear fruit. They just sap energy from the plant. Removing them early in pruning will also help you see the structure of your tree and make it easier to see where further cuts are necessary.

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  • 04 of 09

    Pruning Low Branches

    Pruning Apple Trees - Removing Low Branches
    Pruning Apple Trees - Removing Low Branches. Marie Iannotti

    Get rid of any branches within about 4' of the ground. They'll probably be too shaded to produce any apples and they'll just invite animals to nibble.

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  • 05 of 09

    Pruning Out Future Problems

    Pruning Apple Trees - Downward Facing Branches
    Pruning Apple Trees - Downward Facing Branches. Marie Iannotti

    Prune out any downward facing branches. They too will be shaded and won't be productive. Next, focus on removing any branches that cross or rub against larger branches. As these grow, they will get thicker and heavier. Get rid of them now before they do damage to the branches you need in your scaffold. (FYI - The green rope is being used to bend down another branch.)

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  • 06 of 09

    Keeping Your Apple Tree Pruned to One Main Leader

    Apple Tree Pruning - Competing Leaders
    Apple Tree Pruning - Competing Leaders. Marie Iannotti

    Step back and view the tree again. It should have one main leader or central trunk. On the tree here, the leader is a bit curved, from not being staked and bending in the wind. This is OK, but the side branches on the leader will have to go. They were left there when they were young and thin, but now they are becoming competing branches and will distort the shape and openness of the tree. Prune them back.

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  • 07 of 09

    Outward Facing Bud Photo

    Outward Facing Bud
    Pruning Apple Trees - Outward Facing Bud. Marie Iannotti

    When you are pruning out an entire branch, you can cut back to the collar of the branch, slightly away from the trunk. Just follow the ring of the collar.

    However, when you are only partially pruning the branch, you'll want to try and prune to an outward facing bud. In the photo above, you can see that the outward bud is directed away from the neighboring branch. Cutting just above this bud will encourage it to sprout a new branch that will grow out, away from the other existing branch. If you were to cut above the inward facing branch, you would be encouraging a new branch that would cross and/or shade the existing inner branch and would eventually have to be removed.

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  • 08 of 09

    Clearing the Clutter

    How to Prune Apple Trees - Thinning Inside Branches
    How to Prune Apple Trees - Thinning Cuts. Marie Iannotti

    Now you can focus on thinning interior branches so that sunlight can reach all the fruits and each branch sits at a nice, strong angle of greater than 45 degrees from the leader. Be as ruthless as possible, without removing more than about 1/3 of the branches. Remove all spindly growth. Remember, all of this pruning is going to result in new growth, so the more you get rid of here, the less you'll have to deal with later.

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  • 09 of 09

    Here's What You're Aiming For

    The Final Effect - A Well Pruned Apple Tree
    The Final Effect. Marie Iannotti

    Finally, make sure that upper branches are shorter than the lower branches. Your final result should look like a pyramid with well spaced horizontal branches. The old adage tells us a bird should be able to fly through your apple tree without its wings touching a branch.

    It may look extreme when you've finished, but your tree will bear healthier fruit and be easier to harvest as a result of these efforts.