Prune me! Cut the apples and pears

The old standard apple tree and, below, three-year-old Red Falstaff eating apple.
The old standard apple tree and, below, three-year-old Red Falstaff eating apple.

PRUNING apple and pear trees is confusing – why do you do it in summer and winter?

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

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

The time to summer prune is when the bottom third of the new shoots is stiff and woody.

In North-East England, that’s generally the end of July/beginning of August for pears and the beginning of September for apples.

Of course, this is a rough guide – your trees may grow in sheltered spots and go woody earlier. Follow what the tree is doing, not the books (or online!) My apple trees are late this year and are ready to be done.


Summer pruning is to cut back new shoots to allow light to reach the fruit.

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 as they usually end in fruit buds.

Cut back new shoots growing from existing sideshoots (sub-laterals) to one leaf above the basal cluster.

Remove any upright, vigorous growth completely.


Apple and pear trees should be pruned 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.

Winter pruning is mainly for apples and pears grown as bush or standards. Restricted forms are managed with summer pruning, although winter pruning is used to train them initially.

Pruning should be carried out when the tree is dormant, between November and early March.

You’ll need sharp secateurs, loppers and a pruning saw. Start by removing crossing, rubbing, dead, diseased and damaged branches.

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

Reduce the height and spread of any 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.)

From here, the next steps depends on whether the tree is a spur- or tip-bearer.

Spur-bearing varieties: Shorten the previous year’s growth on each main branch by about one third to a bud facing in the required direction to encourage the development of new branches and spurs.

Cut back any young laterals growing from the main framework to five or six buds.

On older trees, remove any spur systems that have become overcrowded.

Tip-bearing varieties: Prune the previous 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.