Apples and pears: pruning new trees

Young apple and pear trees need good formative pruning to establish productive trees with a balanced branch system. Pruning is not difficult and taking the time to get it right in the early years should lead to fewer problems later on.

Winter pruning of a young apple tree

Quick facts

Suitable for One- and two-year-old apple and pear trees
Timing November to March
Difficulty Moderate

Suitable for...

This method of pruning is suitable for one- and two-year-old apple and pear trees. Correct formative pruning of young trees creates an attractive specimen, with a balanced branch system, that is easy to manage and has a long and productive life.

Buying apple and pear trees

When buying a new apple or pear always select plants with a good root system and sturdy stems, or buy mail order from a reputable nursery.

One-year-old trees are called ‘Maidens’ and are sold as feathered or unfeathered.

  • Feathered maidens: are sold with their sideshoots attached. On these plants, the sideshoots have been kept on and will form the main branches. This saves a year of formative pruning. Buy one with a well-balanced, goblet-shaped branch system. These trees may be more expensive than unfeathered maidens
  • Unfeathered maidens: are sold without their sideshoots, as a single stem. They are often cheaper than feathered maidens and almost as satisfactory

When to prune

Pruning should be carried out when the tree is dormant, between leaf fall and bud burst (usually between November and early March), but not in extremely frosty weather.

How to prune new apple and pear trees

When pruning, always use sharp secateurs to make pruning cuts, just above and sloping away from a bud.

One-year-old trees

Feathered maidens

  • Cut back the central stem just above a wide-angled, strong shoot, approximately 75cm (2½ft) from the ground, ensuring there are two or three evenly-spaced shoots below
  • Shorten these branches by half to two-thirds, cutting just above an outward-facing bud
  • Remove the remaining lower branches

Unfeathered maidens

  • Prune to a bud 75cm (2½ft) above the ground, with three or four healthy buds below. Prune cultivars on strong dwarfing rootstocks, such as M27, to 60cm (2ft)

Two-year-old trees

  • Remove the topmost shoot
  • Select the best three or four shoots to form the main framework of branches and remove any others. If growth is too vertical, shorten the selected shoots by one-third, cutting just above an outward-facing bud to encourage the formation of a goblet-shaped branch structure
  • Remove the remaining lower branches

Pruning the following winter

  • Select one or two shoots per branch to form side branches and shorten them by one-third
  • Shorten the previous year’s growth on the main stems by one third, cutting just above a healthy bud, leaving eight to ten branches to form a permanent framework
  • Cut back any shoots not required for the main framework to four or five buds
  • Remove any shoots growing towards the centre of the tree

Problems

There are few problems associated with pruning. However, problems you may spot along the way include apple canker, blossom wilt, bracket fungi, brown rot and frost damage.

Unproductive fruit trees are also something to tackle while pruning.

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