How To Prune An Apple Tree In Winter

In this article we are going to talk about how to prune an apple tree in winter and what are the important steps to be followed and if there any issues to be aware of.

Winter pruning apple trees

It is important to carry out any pruning the apple tree may need during winter time as this is when the tree is not growing as much and any cuts made will have a better chance of healing due to the lower risk of infection.

This winter pruning will encourage vigorous growth and if done correctly the growth will go into the apples instead of new shoots or branches. We will discuss where you should make your cuts on the branches which will encourage the growth of a great crop of apples every year. Neglected trees can eventually stop producing fruit if they are not attended to.

How to prune an apple tree

You should start by pruning away any branches that are dead, diseased or damaged. If you see any shoots coming from around the bottom of the tree prune those away also. These new stems coming from the main branches are known as water shoots and these should be removed as they will take the growing focus away from your apples and put the energy into encouraging more branch growth.

How to make heading back cuts on an apple tree

Heading back cuts are made on the new growth of the apple tree. It involves cutting back roughly 20 to 30% of the previous years new growth. If you do not stop this new growth the tree will keep growing larger and will not produce much fruit. The cutting back cuts should be made part way long the branch- the cut should be made after an outward facing bud.

Thinning out the apple tree

You should cut away any branches which are touching other branches as the rubbing will expose the bark and this will leave the tree susceptible to disease.

Where you see the bark rubbed off you should cut with your secateurs before the open wound. The middle of the tree should be open to allow for a good airflow through it, this will keep any fungal growth to a minimum.
Remove any large branches which are heading towards the middle of the tree as this will fill up the middle area and cause issues later.


I wouldn’t remove any more than 20 to 30% of the overall tree canopy in any one growing season, as this is hard on the tree and may cause it to become infected and die. You should also know that the more you cut off the more vigorous the regrowth will be, so it may be an idea to be vigilant during spring and summer as you may have many watershoots emerging – which should be cut away as soon as visible.

What is the objective of pruning?

  • You should aim to open up the middle section of your apple tree, to allow a more manageable, less tangly tree.
  • Removing any branches which are crossing over, dead, infected or that are growing up in the middle of the tree.
  • Avoid cutting too many branches all around the tree as this will encourage regrowth all over – giving you a headache the next season.
  • Avoid pruning very large branches as these will leave a very large wound which may be susceptible to disease.
  • There is no need to use pruning paint- keep your cuts clean by using a sharp saw
  • Cut away any dead cankers

Apple canker

There is a fungal disease called apple canker which you should be aware of. It appears on the branches and fruit.

It is easy to recognise as you will find branches with sunken holes and patches of dead bark. These are usually caused by infection which usually occurs on damaged bark sections of branches or at newly formed buds.

The new cankers form in mid spring and once formed are present all year. Apple canker can also affect the apples- when they are attacked they will rot and eventually fall from the tree.

Apple canker occurs more frequently on wet heavy soil with a higher PH, so if you are finding it to be an issue for you, you may require liming or drainage.

Important points to remember when pruning your apple tree

  • Always use a strong step ladder if you need to reach into the higher branches.
  • Ensure your secateurs are sharp and properly lubricated- you don’t want to have them sticking shut when you’re up near the top of the tree.
  • Your pruning saw should be sharp enough for you two make any cuts as effortlessly as possible.
  • Avoid trying to make your apple tree look a piece of art. It should be more important to you to make your cuts in the required areas so that the tree will be productive healthy rather than aesthetically pleasing.
  • The crusty growths that you find on the branches is lichen, this will not harm your tree and does not require you to take any action.
  • If you find that you have a lot of dead branches but you don’t see any apparent reason, it may be that is your apple tree has a root problem. One such root problem is “honey fungus” and if you suspect that this is the culprit you should send a sample of it to a horticultural laboratory for analysis and treatment.
  • Brown shrivelled mumified fruit hanging from the branches in winter will be apples which have been infected with brown rot during the autumn months. These should be removed from the tree and put into the bin or burnt on a fire.
  • Sometimes you may find cavities in the main trunk- this is natural and something that should not cause you concern.
  • On very large branches – if they do need to be removed you should cut them off in sections, this will be much safer for you and you can assess how much more needs to be removed easier when you take it piece by piece.
  • Remember that vertical branches do not produce as much fruit as horizontal ones-keep this in mind if you find your tree seems to becoming too tall.
  • If the tree hasn’t been attended to in many years, you don’t have to do all the pruning in one season. It can be done over many seasons and is actually better to be done that way.

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