Breaking the Rules: Apple Pruning

Back in Waterperry's orchard with Horticultural Manager Rob Jacobs - a very fine place to be

In honour of today's Apple Day, I'm returning to last month's study day at Waterperry Gardens, where we learnt lots about the summer pruning of trained apple trees such as cordons and espaliers. Note this pruning does not apply to apples grown as bush or standard trees; their pruning is confined to the winter period.

Summer pruning is carried out on the shoots growing out from the main branches. This is to increase the number of fruiting spurs on the tree for the following year and to let the sunlight through to ripen the current year's crop. The RHS guidance says that this pruning is best carried out in the third week in August in the south and around 10 days later in the north.

This guidance also says the pruning should be done when the bottom third of the new shoot is firm and woody. This timing is judged according to the tree's vigour, its location and the weather conditions at the time.

We found out this latter guidance is more important, rather than the August timing. If pruning is carried out too early, then the pruned shoot will continue to grow, rather than forming the stubby fruiting spur required. Therefore if the tree is pruned too early, there will be little or no fruit next year.

Thus, it's better to watch out for the tree itself to tell you when it's ready to be pruned. The key is to look at the tip of the shoot. If there's a tight bud as shown above, then it's time to prune.

Here's the same picture with a large purple arrow helpfully pointing to the tightly formed bud. This shows the tree has started to hunker down ready for winter and the pruning of this shoot will produce the desired fruiting spur for next year.

At Waterperry they've found this is usually mid September, rather than the August mentioned in the RHS guidance. This year it was even later - we were there late September and the tighter buds were only just beginning to form.

The pictured shoot is usually pruned down to 'three leaves'. This involves finding where the shoot joins the main branch, ignoring the basal rosette of leaves found at this join, then counting up past three leaves along the branch.

At Waterperry they've found counting along four leaves works better for their soil conditions and aspect. The pruning cut is angled so that the minimum of rainwater hits the wound whilst it's healing.

I was concerned this later pruning wouldn't give the fruit enough sunlight to ripen, but as you can see from the above photo, it isn't a problem.

So by ignoring the guidance re timing and paying attention to what the tree is telling you instead, your apple tree has a much better chance of fruiting well next year.


  1. Thanks for such an interesting, and informative, post and good links. Not that I'm likely to be doing any apple pruning in the foreseeable future. Flighty xx

    1. Hi Flighty - thanks :) I wondered about saving the post for next year, so that people would get the information at a more appropriate time. But then, I'd probably forget about it, or most of what we learnt on the day. I'll just have to tweet about it and post it up on Facebook instead!

    2. PS and I really wish I'd known about this when I pruned my cordons back in August. I wonder how my crop will fare next year?

  2. Thanks for this information, I must go and have a look at my cordon apples and see what is happening, as I too pruned mine in August! So far I have had plenty of fruit on my apples but not my pears.This year I had one pear, it was coming along nicely and I thought , just a few more days and then I should be able to pick it. When I went to pick it, it had gone, completely, no sign of it at all anywhere underneath!

    1. Hi Pauline - this guidance also applies to pears. We have badgers on our allotment site - they're rather partial to pears!

  3. I have terrible troubles trying to prune my espalier. I stare and stare and can't tell where are tips and where are spurs . . . it all sounds so easy when I read about it and turns out to be befuddling when I come to do it. And now I find I've left it all too late. Hey ho! At least my apples (though not many) taste good for the first time (the first time!) since I planted the tree thirteen years ago. (I'm always worried about encouraging too much leaf growth when I prune early . . . but that's probably further proof that I don't know what I'm doing.

    1. Hi Esther - I felt the same as you before I went to Waterperry. I'll show you what's what the next time I visit :)

  4. This is a great post, some really useful information. I have some apples that I was training as espaliers, although they are doing their own thing a bit now. I need to pay a bit more attention to pruning next year I think.

    1. Hi CJ - I need to pay more attention next year too. Here's to a good apple crop in 2015 at the latest!

  5. I've got a new apple cordon - planted in spring this year - and did follow the '3 leaves on a sideshoot' guidance in August. Only time will tell if it I did it correctly.

    1. Looking forward to finding out how you got on!

      We also had some great advice on how to start training cordons and espaliers. That's a post for another day...

  6. Hi there, great tips as always. Have you read 'The Fruit Tree Handbook' by Ben Pike? It is an awesome book and if you want to know anymore information about a whole host of topics concerning fruit trees then I would suggest that you have a read.


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