How To Prune Apple Trees In Winter - Backyard Boss
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How To Prune Apple Trees In Winter

If you’re lucky enough to have an apple tree in your yard, you know how beautiful, abundant, and nourishing these plants are during their peak season. But once the fall harvesting ends, it’s important to know how to care for your tree leading into its dormant season. 

Pruning is the thoughtful removal of plant components in order to establish shape, manage growth, remove dead or diseased parts, and promote maturity. For apple trees, this is done in the winter—late November to early March—to complete the cycle and prepare it for a new growing season. This is why it’s best to prune in winter! Knowing how to properly prune your apple tree will ensure its best and most bountiful bloom the following year.  

Tools You’ll Need

Ladder next to apple tree
Image credits: LouiseLalandecoCreations via MorgueFile

Safely and properly pruning your apple tree requires specific tools, make sure you have these essentials.

What to Prune

Bare winter apple tree with single apple
Image credits: joimmeta via MorgueFile

You don’t want to go overboard with your pruning, so here are few things to look for when deciding what to cut. 

  • Broken branches
  • Dead or dying branches 
  • Diseases branches
  • Branches that cross each or grow toward the tree or ground
  • Suckers (shoots that grow from the roots of a tree) and water sprouts (shoots growing from main branches straight upward.) 

How to Prune

Pruned apple tree branch
Image credits: SQUAIO via MorgueFile

Before you start, stand back and take a good look at your tree. Notice the parts that stand out and the overall shape of the tree. Be sure to use a ladder for large trees and any branches above your head. Follow these three steps for a safe garden cleanup. 

Step 1: Cleaning up 

Know what tool to use for what branch. Use your pruning shears for smaller parts (up to 3/4 inch in diameter.) Use your loppers for medium parts (up to 1 to 1/2 inch.) And finally, use your pruning saw for any larger branches.  

You should start with the most obvious pieces that need to go. Broken, sick, or dead branches should be removed right from their bases. Then, tackle the suckers and water shoots, removing them from main branches. 

Step 2: Thinning out

The shape should be like an open goblet with an anatomy of four to five primary branches and evenly spaced smaller ones. Look at the new growth from each main branch and aim to reduce this by about a third. Any cuts you make should be clean and flush to the branch they grow from. 

Remove interior branches that grow upward and cross or rub against other branches. When you see two branches competing with one-another or growing from the same point, remove the weaker and less healthy option. 

Take your time, pausing to step back from the tree to assess the over all shape and density as you go. 

Step 3: Heading Cuts

Heading cuts remove portions of branches, cutting away about 20 to 30 percent of the growth from the previous year. This will reduce the number of buds your tree needs to feed over the winter and allow for thicker branches to grow in the spring. Make these cuts partway along the branch, about a quarter of an inch over an outward-facing bud. The direction the bud is growing will be the direction the new branch will grow in. 

When removing larger branches, it’s better to do so in smaller sections for safety purposes. 

Tips for Stages of Trees

Small bare apple tree
Image credits: ArielleJay via MorgueFile

Trees at different stages of life and care require different pruning strategies.

Young Trees

Younger trees should be pruned to encourage a proper shape and open structure. Strategic heading cuts will set them up for success, which for an apple tree means vigorous growth, healthy flowers, and delicious fruit. 

Old Trees

For an older tree, the thinning stage is most important and fewer heading cuts are needed. Look for overcrowded sections to thin out, or completely remove. Focus on the underside of the branches, as these shoots won’t receive sufficient light in order to produce the best fruit. 

Neglected Trees

If you’re dealing with a tree that hasn’t been pruned in a while, start at the center of the tree, removing large branches from the origin point. If there are too many, don’t tackle it all in one winter; spread it out over two or three. If you prune too hard in one season, this can overstimulate growth, leaving you worse off the next season. 

Large or Mature Trees

For trees that have become oversized and grow vigorously, you might need to also do some maintenance pruning in the summer months. Ensure that you are pruning regularly to control the size of the tree over time. 


Apple tree branch bark
Image credits: EmmiP via MorgueFile

When you’re doing your pruning, you might notice some issues with your tree. Here are a couple to watch out for, and what you can do to address them. 

Apple Cankers

Patches of dead or sunken bark on the branches of your tree could be this fungal disease. It can lead to dead branches, so it’s best to nip it in the bud (pun intended). If a smaller branch is affected, cut it off completely. For larger branches, remove infected bark and cut down to the green tissue inside. You can then apply a protective wood paint to the area to seal it from infection. 

Algae, Moss, or Lichens

Crusty, grey or green, powdery or mossy growths can appear on branches. These may look scary, but aren’t acutely harmful. They can, however, indicate damp or humid conditions, which could also lead to poor growth. This can be addressed in pruning; reducing overcrowding will allow for better air circulation between the branches. When you notice its vigor restored, you can then remove affected shoots and branches. 

A Fruitful Formula 

Through the process of pruning, you’ll get to know your apple tree; which branches are new, which are struggling, and which produce the best buds and blooms each year. It might seem daunting at first, but once you start it will become an intuitive and rewarding process. With a little bit of effort in the winter months, you can set the stage for a fruitful fall.

Do you have experience pruning apple trees? Share tips in the comments below!