Pruning fruit trees in summer results in less vigorous regrowth and maintains the trees’ general size and shape. When pruning apple trees, it is important to keep in mind that, from a pruning point of view, there are two types: spur bearing and tip bearing. Each type needs a different approach to pruning to achieve the best fruit yields.
Summer pruning of apples is really best carried out in late summer or early autumn, when the fruit has already been picked to avoid knocking them off. This also prevents the fruit and branches being exposed to too much full summer sun which might occur if pruning were carried out in the height of summer or late spring.
Prune According to Where Fruit is Borne
Heritage apple trees are mainly spur-bearing varieties, originating in the Northern hemisphere.
Spurs are produced on two-year-old wood which can persist for years but also needs to be renewed by pruning.
Many backyard trees such as Granny Smith, Fuji, and Pink Lady are all tip bearers or partial tip bearers. Do not prune these in the same way as spur bearing apples.
Pruning tip bearers requires you to leave lateral shoots of less than 20cm or “pencils’ to bear fruit on the tips. Head back other branches leaving buds to produce laterals for next year.
Pruning to Shape
For either type of tree, prune to whichever shape or style best fits the site – it could be vase, central leader or espalier. Often that means pruning fairly hard to keep the tree compact and easy to pick or move past. Also keep an open habit to give each branch, tip or set of spurs its own space in which to produce fruit.
Ensure the top of the tree and any vertical growth is headed back letting in some light to branches and fruit but beware … do not expose the branches and fruit to too much hot sun in the summer as both will burn and cause disease and decay.
Instead, leave an even distribution of branches and leaves in the canopy, preferably laterals which will produce more fruit, or, if you are considering making grafts from heritage trees, leaving some long tall branches to be harvested as scion wood for grafting in the winter.
In the backyard setting, I like to prune to a ‘tree shape’. Even though the vase and central leader (pyramid) styles were developed for orchards, these styles are also often found or preferred in home gardens. By tree shaped I mean that all the branches are evenly spaced and the overall shape of the tree fills the space in which it exists. Light can easily get to as much fruiting wood as possible.
- Prune dead, damaged, or diseased wood from the tree.
- Remove crossing branches which might later become dead, damaged, or diseased.
- Remove any branches which are intruding over paths or encroaching on other trees or plants.
- Ensure the tree is not too high to pick the fruit or to throw a net over.
- Consider the development of new scaffold branches if there is an unproductive gap in the tree.
- Leave enough leaf on branches to produce energy for further growth and enough leaf in the canopy to protect the branches and fruit from sunburn.
- Thin the canopy to allow air flow to the centre of the tree and light to the fruit-bearing branches.
- Prune away unnecessary vertical or particularly leafy shoots, water shoots, and branches.
- Prune vertical shoots off completely or leave just a few buds if fresh growth is required in the area.
- Thin remaining laterals ensuring that there is ample room around each spur or fruiting tip.
- Thin spurs (removing some buds) if they have become crowded or old and unproductive.
- Dispose of prunings which show any signs of disease by burning or completely submerging in water until rotted.
By the time you have done all that there won’t be much left to worry about whether you are doing it correctly!
I believe that a well-pruned tree is aesthetically pleasing, certainly in the backyard setting.