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Apples & pears

How to prune apples and pears

Pruning apple tree
Not my most glamorous hour – pruning the old apple tree

Pruning apple and pear trees are confusing, as I’ve illustrated admirably on my dysfunctional apple trees. I don’t have any pears, so I’m no expert on them but the techniques are the same.

First, an introduction to my trees, in age-before-beauty order.

There’s my 40+-year-old tree grown from what I think was a Cox’s pip, sown by me when I was eight in my parents’ back yard and carted to this house in a tub.

Whitebeam and one of the old apple trees
Whitebeam and the old triple apple tree, which finally got the chop in early 2017

I’m too sentimental to chop it down but know I should – it’s riddled with canker and woolly aphid, rarely bears a crop and suffers from my disastrously ill-informed attempts at pruning.

Things get much better with the Red Falstaff, bought as a gift several years ago. It’s in a half barrel and will actually bear fruit.

Even better is the crab apple John Downie, bought as my leaving gift from the Sunderland Echo in 2012. I’d love to be in a position to make crab apple jelly but the birds beat me to it.

Pruning trees

Red Falstaff apple blossom
Red Falstaff apple blossom

Pruning is something I have to look it up every year. What makes it worse is that I’m not sure my trees know their orientation either.

Is the big one a standard? The ‘triple apple’ a bush? Who knows – do your best!

It depends on the type of tree and its age. Summer pruning is mainly for trained trees: cordons, espalier, fan, pyramid, or spindlebush, if space is restricted or it’s grown in a container.

Trees grown as standards or bushes are usually managed with winter pruning.

potted-guide-logo Potted guide: spur/partial tip bearers

  •  APPLES: SPUR-BEARERS: Ashmeads Kernel; Egremont Russet; Howgate Wonder; James Grieve; Braeburn; Lord Derby; Orange Pippin; Spartan.
  •  PARTIAL TIP-BEARERS: Adams Pearmain; Bramley; Blenheim Orange; Discovery: crab apple John Downie; Lord Lambourne; Red Falstaff; Worcester Pearmain.
  • PEARS: SPUR -BEARERS: Concorde; Beurre Hardy; Conference; Doyenne du Comice; Onward; Sensation; Merton Pride; Williams Bon Chretien.
  • PARTIAL TIP-BEARERS: Jargonelle; Josephine de Malines.

Winter pruning: November-early March

Crab apple John Downie
Crab apple John Downie

1. Prune bush and standard trees every winter to ensure a good crop the following season. The aim is to create an open goblet shape with a framework of about five main branches.

2. You’ll need sharp secateurs, loppers and a pruning saw. Start by removing crossing, rubbing, weak, dead, diseased and damaged branches. If you do nothing else, this will improve your tree.

3. Keep the centre open by removing larger branches with a pruning saw. If a tree is neglected and several branches need to be removed, spread the work over two or three winters.

Apple in a barrel Red Falstaff
Apple in a barrel Red Falstaff

4. Reduce the height of branches that have grown too big by cutting them back to a vigorous lower branch (make sure this is at least one-third of the diameter of the branch being cut out).

5. Is it a spur-bearer, tip-bearer, or partial tip-bearer? Most cultivated apples are tip-bearers, but don’t chance it – you may cut off all your potential fruit. Look up your variety and find out. I’ve got a short list of some of the common types. It’s best to prune a partial tip-bearer like a spur-bearer, as it has spurs.

6. Spur-bearing varieties: Shorten the previous year’s growth on each main branch by one-third to a bud facing in the required direction to encourage new branches and spurs. Cut back young laterals from the main framework to five or six buds. On older trees, remove any overcrowded spur systems.

7. Tip-bearing varieties: Prune last year’s growth on each main branch and the most vigorous laterals to the first strong bud. Leave unpruned laterals less than 30cm (1ft) long. Cut back some older fruited wood to a young shoot or leaf bud to reduce congestion.

Summer pruning: late July-September

The old apple tree with a solitary apple

1. Prune when the bottom third of new shoots are stiff and woody. In NE England, generally the end of July/beginning of August for pears and the beginning of September for apples. Of course, this is a rough guide – follow what the tree is doing.

2. The aim is to cut back new shoots to allow light to reach the fruit.

3. Cut back new shoots (laterals) more than 20cm (8in) long growing from the main stem to three leaves above the basal cluster of leaves. Do not prune new shoots that are less than 20cm (8in) long.

4. Cut back new shoots growing from existing side shoots to one leaf above the basal cluster.

5. Remove any upright, vigorous growth completely.

Over-pruning and water shoots

Over-pruning results in a mass of water shoots
Over-pruning results in a mass of water shoots

I over-pruned the big apple tree in 2013, resulting in water shoots – upright, leafy branches, producing no fruit. This vigorous growth is a response if you remove more than a quarter of the canopy in a year.

To solve the problem:

Year 1: remove water shoots growing directly from the trunk or from the lower parts of main branches and cut away half of those remaining from their base. Then cut off the top 10cm (4in) of the remaining shoots, to encourage branching.

Year 2: remove half the water shoots retained. Prune the remaining shoots to an outward-facing bud or branch.

Year 3: continue to prune to outward-facing buds or branches. Fruit buds should have started to form on new shoots. When this happens, revert to winter pruning.

Year 4: mulch trees in the spring following pruning, and feed with a general fertiliser.