How to Prune an Apple Tree [5 Steps for Overgrown Trees]

You can prune even the most overgrown apple tree by cutting off dead branches as a first step. Once any dead branches are removed, look for small “water sprouts” growing from the base of the tree and remove them. Next, prune off any small branches that cross over larger branches—this allows light and air to reach all the branches. If one branch is growing right above another branch, remove the weaker of the two. The goal is to grow an apple tree that allows light from above to reach every branch. This will ensure a healthy, rot-free crop of apples.

How to prune an apple tree

How Often Should You Prune Your Apple Tree?

If possible, prune your apple trees once every year. This prevents overgrowth and encourages the best fruit production. Yearly pruning is a quick job once you’ve established a healthy apple tree. Overgrown trees that are pruned less often require more work to prune.

  • Prune your apple tree once every year.
  • Annual pruning leads to a healthy apple tree that requires minimal pruning.
  • If desired, you can opt for pruning once every 2–3 years instead.

Home apple growers that are not focused on producing as much fruit as possible can afford to prune less often. If your apple tree is more for appearance and the fruit is a bonus, you can prune once every 2–3 years.

What Month Should You Prune Your Apple Tree?

The best month to prune an apple tree is in March or April, when the branches have begun to form buds but they have not yet grown new leaves. The reason this time is perfect is that it allows you to easily identify dead branches that need to be removed. The dead branches won’t have any buds in spring.

  • Early spring months—such as March and April—are the best time to prune apple trees.
  • It’s easy to identify dead branches in spring—they won’t have any buds.
  • Pruning in late winter is also a good choice.
  • Avoid pruning in summer or fall.

Although late winter is also a good time to prune, if buds haven’t formed yet it can be difficult to tell dead branches from live ones. Avoid pruning in summer or fall. This can force new growth late in the year. This new growth is often prone to damage from insects and winter weather.

5 Steps to Prune An Overgrown Apple Tree

To prune an apple tree, you’ll need a clean pair of pruning shears. It’s best to scrub your pruning blades with rubbing alcohol before and after pruning. This prevents plant diseases from being transmitted from one tree to the next as you use your shears. Once your shears are clean, follow these steps:

Remove Dead Branches

Begin by identifying any dead branches on your apple tree. By waiting until early spring to prune, this step becomes much easier. Once your apple tree has grown new leaf buds, inspect the branches to find which ones have no buds. These are dead branches. Remove them with your pruning shears.

  • In early spring, inspect your apple tree—branches without buds are dead.
  • Remove dead branches by cutting them off flush where they meet a larger branch or the tree trunk.
  • Do not leave portions of branches while pruning—this promotes tree diseases.

When removing branches, cut them off fully. This means that if an entire branch is dead, cut it off flush with the apple tree’s trunk. If the dead branch is a smaller offshoot of a larger branch, prune it off right where it meets the larger branch. When pruning, never leave “coat hangers” or “spurs.” Branch nubs left behind by pruning are prone to rot and disease, which can harm your tree. If you remove the branch cleanly, your apple tree can heal.

Clip Off Suckers

Suckers or “water sprouts” are small branches that grow near the base of an apple tree, or where the tree was previously damaged. They are often thin branches that grow almost directly upward. These suckers should be removed with pruning shears. Clip them off flush with the trunk and discard them.

  • Look for small branches growing near the base of your tree and remove them.
  • Inspect areas where the tree was previously pruned or damaged—remove any small branches growing upward from these areas.
  • Removing these small suckers redirects energy toward fruit production.

Suckers take precious energy from your apple tree. By pruning them off, your tree redirects energy toward growing a healthy canopy and producing plenty of fruit. So, you won’t do any harm to your tree by removing these sprouts.

Prune Away Crossing Branches

Once you’ve removed dead branches and suckers, look for branches that cross over one another. There may be cases where one branch grows at an angle, crossing sideways over the path of a nearby branch. Alternatively, an offshoot from a lower branch may grow upward and cross over a branch above. In each of these cases, select the smaller, weaker branch and remove it. Crossing branches inhibit proper apple growth and may even cause tree wounds and infections where the branches rub against one another.

  • Look for places where two branches grow at an angle and cross over one another—remove the weaker branch of the two.
  • Remove offshoots that grow vertically and cross over the branches above.
  • Removing tangled branches encourages healthy air and light exposure for the remaining branches.
  • Do not use pruning sealant after removing branches.

After fully removing branches by cutting them flush with the parent branch or trunk, do not use pruning paint to seal the wounds. There are several reasons you should never seal tree limbs after cutting. Our editors have successfully pruned overgrown apple trees and increased their fruit yield by following this process and not using any pruning sealant.

Remove Blocking Branches

In cases where one apple tree branch is growing right above another, one of the branches should be removed. Select the weaker of the branches and remove them fully. An apple tree with fewer, stronger branches will actually remain healthier and grow more apples than a tree with an abundance of crowded branches.

  • Where two branches are growing right above one another, select the weaker branch and remove it.
  • Lower branches that do not receive light from above will suffer and produce few apples.
  • If your tree is extremely overgrown, you can spread these pruning steps across 2 years to prevent overpruning.

If you have a very overgrown apple tree and are worried about pruning off too many branches at once, you can stretch the pruning process over 2 years. Begin by removing dead branches, suckers, and crossing branches in year one. Then, in the second year, remove additional branches to encourage better growth.

Allow Light From Above

Apple branches bloom and produce fruit best when each branch receives light from above. So, you may need to remove several upper branches from an overgrown tree. While you can remove the top third of the apple tree to make for ample light exposure and easy harvesting, this can be a big pruning job. Instead, you can select and remove upper branches that block light from reaching the branches below.

  • Remove upper branches to make sure every lower branch receives ample sunlight.
  • In some cases, you can remove the top third of branches from an overgrown tree.
  • It helps to picture apple tree branches as spokes on a wheel—there should be nothing blocking light from above and there should be no branches directly below. 

When you prune your apple tree, think of each branch as the spoke of a wheel. The spokes can be at different heights on the tree as long as there are no branches directly above or below. This “spoke method” encourages apple trees that grow outward, rather than upward. This is excellent because it makes picking apples easy and increases the amount of fruit you get from each tree.

How Much Can You Cut Back an Apple Tree?

You can remove up to one-third of the branches from an apple tree without killing it. This means you can be fairly aggressive with pruning and your tree will still survive. However, if an apple tree is very overgrown and tangled, stop after removing one-third of the branches. Wait and see how your fruit trees perform, then prune again next spring.

How Do You Prune an Apple Tree that has Never Been Pruned?

Even the wildest apple trees can be successfully pruned by removing dead branches, suckers, and crossing branches. Once the worst offenders are gone, focus on making sure each of the lateral branches receives plenty of light from above. This often requires removing branches from the upper portion of the tree.

  • Use the process detailed in this article to prune apple trees that have never been trained.
  • Begin by cutting off dead branches and suckers.
  • Remove crossing branches to promote healthy lateral branches.
  • Prune off upper portions of the tree so light reaches each spreading branch.

You may be worried it’s too late for your overgrown apple tree, but mature trees typically respond well to pruning. Just remember to make your pruning cuts flush with the trunk or parent branch. This will allow the tree to heal naturally and resist disease.

How to Prune an Apple Tree: For Beginners

When pruning an apple tree, start with a clean pair of pruning shears, then follow these steps:

  • Prune in early spring, when the branches have begun to bud but leaves have not formed.
  • Remove dead and diseased branches—they will not have leaf buds.
  • Cuts off water sprouts growing from the base of the tree or from previously damaged areas.
  • Wherever two branches cross over one another, remove the weaker branch.
  • If one branch is growing directly above another branch, remove the weaker of the two branches.
  • Remove upper branches so that each branch of your apple tree receives direct sunlight from above.

These pruning methods work excellently for all apple trees. You can apply this method to revitalize an overgrown tree with diseased branches, or you can follow these steps to gently train a young apple tree. With yearly pruning, your fruit trees will flourish.

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