How to Prune Apple Trees in Winter

If you have apple or other fruit-bearing trees or a home orchard, you are probably aware of the importance of pruning them. Pruning can improve air circulation and reduce the severity of certain crop-damaging issues. It can also remove dying and unproductive branches, keep the fruit tree at a more manageable and harvestable height, and, most importantly, encourage the growth of healthier and more delicious fruit!

If you want to ensure that your apple tree remains healthy and filled with delicious fruit, it is important to prune it in the winter months and during the summer.

To help you learn what you need to know, we go over everything from useful pruning tools you will need to what weather conditions are ideal for winter pruning tasks. From there, we cover a straightforward step-by-step guide that will explain how to prune apple trees in winter.

When Should You Prune Apple Trees?

As you probably know, summer pruning is important for encouraging proper fruiting and flowering. Prune your apple tree throughout June and into early July. While these pruning tasks can improve your harvest during the late summer and early fall, they are not the most important pruning tasks you will perform.

In terms of winter pruning, you can usually begin in late winter. In some cases, people will even perform their winter pruning tasks during the early spring before the fruit tree shows any signs of budding.

You want to ensure that the tree is dormant before you begin winter pruning. In ideal conditions, you will have dry weather for at least two weeks following your pruning, so it is a good idea to keep your eyes on weather reports. Dry weather helps prevent recent cuts from being exposed to bacteria and fungus spores, which can severely damage the entire tree.

If you live in a cold climate, it is worth noting that snow and ice are considered dry conditions, as they also inhibit the spread of fungus and bacteria. With that said, you do not want to prune during overly icy conditions, as the frozen branches will be more susceptible to snapping and breaking as you work.

What Pruning Tools Will You Need?

You can perform most pruning tasks with the following pieces of equipment: 

      Folding or Pruning Saw – This can be useful for the larger and more difficult branches

      Steel Pruning Shears – Helps with trimming small branches

      Long-handled Loppers – Very useful for thick branches that are difficult to reach

      Step Ladder – Helps you reach the top branches, so you can scale them back

Also remember to clean any tools that will contact the branches before you get started, as this helps prevent diseases from spreading. If you are planning on pruning more than one apple tree, you should also sanitize the blades between trees. Use an alcohol-based sanitizer and allow the blades to dry before you use them on the tree.

How to Prune An Apple Tree in Winter – Step-by-Step Guide

Now that you know when to prune your apple trees and what tools you will need, we can get to our step-by-step guide. Remember, you want to improve the overall health of your tree by improving the shape of its branches and increasing the amount of airflow that gets to the interior branches. 

Not only will this help you when it comes time to harvest apples from the tree, but it will also help prevent some of the fungal diseases that can damage apple trees, as it allows sunlight to reach interior branches. Sunlight helps kill fungal diseases and also helps fruit ripen, so it is critical that it can reach all areas of your apple tree, rather than just the exterior leaves, flowers, and fruits.

Step 1 – Remove Any Dead, Damaged, or Diseased Branches

Whether you are pruning in winter or during the early summer months, your first task should always be to remove any wood that shows signs of disease and rot and any branches that are dying or dead.

You will want to make deep and clean cuts a few inches from where the issue is present, as this will help prevent the issue from spreading. If you are removing branches that appear to show signs of damage due to fungal disease or rot, make sure that you sanitize any tools you used before moving onto another branch, as this will help prevent the issue from spreading.

Step 2 – Remove Any Crossing Branches

Branches that cross one another will eventually cause rubbing, exposing those same branches to disease and burrowing insects. It is a good idea to cut these away during your winter pruning efforts, as the lack of leaves will make them much easier to spot and reach. 

Choose the smaller crossing branches and cut them back so the two branches no longer cross. If you can perform this task while both branches are still small, it will prevent bigger issues from emerging as the tree ages. Try to imagine what the branches will look like when they are weighed down with fruit and leaves. If there is very little space between them now, they will likely rub together later in the year.

Step 3 – Remove Sucker and Water Shoots

Sucker shoots are branches that grow near the base of the trunk. They should be removed, as they do not bear fruit. They only sap strength from the tree and make it more difficult to reach fruit during harvest.

Water shoots are branches that grow directly upwards. They rarely produce fruit but sap strength from the tree and shade the fruit-bearing branches below. 

It is also a good idea to prune any branches that grow downwards during this step, as they rarely contribute to fruit production and do very little for the health of the tree.

Step 4 – Prune Branches to Keep the Center of the Tree Clear

Trim back any inward-growing branches to improve airflow and help reduce shading. Prune the younger-looking shoots that are growing towards the center of the tree, as this will help when the apple tree begins to flower later in the growing season.

You always want to favor branches that grow outwards from the trunk, rather than inwards or upwards, as these will have the greatest chance of bearing the best and easiest-to-reach fruit.

Tips to Follow When Pruning an Apple Tree

Now that you know the steps you should follow to prune an apple tree during the winter, we can go over a few tips to ensure your efforts have the best possible results.

Always Make the Biggest Cuts First

It is important to remove the larger branches before moving on to the smaller twigs and shoots. By cutting these larger branches back right away, you will expose more of the tree, which will allow you to see the smaller issues.

Always Make Clean Cuts

Whether you are pruning during the winter or any other time of the year, it is always important to make clean cuts. To do so, make sure that all of your tools have sharp and corrosion-free blades.

High-quality tools with sharp edges will always make the cleanest cuts. Clean cuts reduce the chances that a cut will become diseased or not heal properly, which can cause serious problems for the entire tree. Once again, it is also important to sanitize your blades, as you do not want your pruning tools to be why a disease or fungal infection has spread from one branch or tree to another.

Make Your Cuts at the Right Location

While this is more relevant during spring and summer pruning efforts, you should always make your cuts above a healthy, outward-facing bud, as this is where the next year’s growth will occur.

If you are removing an entire branch, you should make your cut close to the main branch or trunk, but avoid making the cut flush against it. Look for the raised ‘collar’ where the limb joins and try to cut there.

You should also cut and remove one branch at a time, rather than making numerous cuts and allowing the branches to fall below on their own. Falling branches, especially if they are large branches, can damage healthy branches below.

Always Take Your Time

If you take your time, your pruning efforts will be far more effective. Patience is always key, as the more careful you are, the less prone you will be to making mistakes. The fewer mistakes you make, the healthier your tree will be and the more apples it will produce!

Taking your time will also help ensure you are pruning the branches safely. Remember, you are likely working with sharp and dangerous tools, so wearing gloves and taking your time can prevent unexpected injuries. If you are using a ladder to reach higher branches, it can be safer if you have a spotter to hold the ladder and keep it steady.

How to Know You’ve Finished Pruning 

Now that you have finished, take a step back and have a final look at the tree. The apple tree should have a balanced appearance and be free from overly congested areas where branches will eventually block and shade one another.

Remember, with practice, you will become better at fruit tree pruning, and your apple trees will become healthier year after year and continue to produce fruit for cider making or indeed other uses.

For pressing those precious apples that you have helped nurture and turning them into fresh juice and even hard apple cider, take a look at our fruit press collection here at Simply Cider Presses.