Pruning apple trees: five cuts you can make even if you've never pruned before

Bob Dluzen
The Detroit News

Although you can prune apple trees just about any time of the year, most apple growers agree spring is the best time to do it. 

One reason given for spring pruning is because when trees come out of dormancy, they make a lot of quick growth, therefore are able to heal much faster than other times of the year.

You may have seen professional orchardists out pruning trees as early as February, but that is only because they have so many trees that they need the extra time to get them all pruned before the growing season starts.

Pruning and shaping apple trees takes some knowledge and experience to get it right, but there are a few cuts you can be sure of even if you've never pruned an apple tree before.

You'll need two basic tools. A sharp pair of pruning shears is used to cut twigs and small branches. Although they are more expensive, by-passing pruners make a clean cut. The anvil type may crush some of the fibers of the branch when cutting making it a bit more difficult for the pruning wound to heal.

By-passing pruners (left) are preferred over the anvil type. By-passing pruners make a very clean cut compared to the anvil type which tend to crush plant fibers.

A sharp pair of loppers is also needed. They resemble over-sized pruning shears but are much sturdier than shears, have longer handles and are used for cutting larger diameter branches.

Before pruning remember to make all cuts near the junction of the twig or branch and the main branch or trunk. Don't leave a long stub. Conversely, don't cut into the trunk or main branch, that makes it difficult for the tree to heal. Try to leave just a small "collar" to allow for proper healing.

When pruning, make your cut near the connecting branch. Do not leave a stub.

Here's five basic cuts to make when pruning apple trees:

1) Cut off all dead twigs and branches.  The spot where they attach to the tree provides an entry point for disease and other pests. Once a branch dies, the tree will try to heal around the dead branch. Unless the branch is cut off or falls off naturally, healing will never be complete.

2) Prune away "suckers". They are those thin shoots that grow up around the base of the tree. They don't contribute anything to the tree and make their growth at the expense of the rest of the tree.

Suckers grow from the base of the tree. Cut all suckers off.

3) Help increase light penetration and improve air circulation through the tree by removing all "water sprouts." Those are thin shoots that grow straight up from the main branches. They don't produce fruit and will grow larger each year eventually distorting the shape of the tree.

Water sprouts are easy to identify. They grow straight from the branches.

4) If two branches are rubbing against one another, remove the weakest one. Rubbing damages bark leaving a wound for disease organisms to enter the tree.

5) This one will take a little more thought. Prune away weak branches that are shaded by more vigorous branches. Even though they may produce fruit, it won't be the quality and volume produced by stronger branches. If you are fortunate enough to have inherited a mature apple that has been properly pruned through the years, it's easier to tell which are the weaker branches.

Remove weak branches and those shaded by stronger branches.

There is much more to proper apple tree pruning, but these five cuts will go a long way to improving the health of your tree and building your confidence for more sophisticated pruning.