Apples and pears: winter pruning

Apple and pear trees should be pruned every winter to ensure a good crop of fruit the following season. Trees that are not pruned become less productive and congested with old branches. Pruning is not difficult and the aim is to create an open goblet shape with a framework of about five main branches.

Pruning

Quick facts

Suitable for Apples and pears grown as bush or standard trees
Timing November to early March
Difficulty Moderate

Suitable for...

Winter pruning is mainly for apples and pears grown as bush or standard trees. Restricted forms such as espaliers, cordons, fans, pyramids and spindlebushes are managed with summer pruning, although winter pruning is used initially in their formative training.

When to winter prune apples and pears

Pruning should be carried out when the tree is dormant, between leaf fall and bud burst (usually between November and early March).

How to winter prune apples and pears

The type of pruning technique depends on whether the tree fruits on spurs or towards the tips of shoots made the previous summer.

No matter whether your tree is a spur- or tip-bearer, the first stage of winter pruning is the same for both:

  • Always use a sharp pair of secateurs, loppers and a pruning saw
  • Start by removing crossing, rubbing, weak, dead, diseased, damaged and dying branches
  • Keep the centre of the tree open by removing larger branches with a sharp pruning saw. If several large branches need to be removed, spread the work over two or three winters as very hard pruning encourages even more vigorous growth
  • Reduce the height and spread of any branches that have grown too large by cutting them back to a vigorous lower branch (making sure this lower branch is at least one-third of the diameter of the branch being removed)

Then continue for a spur- or tip-bearer.

Spur-bearing varieties

  • Shorten the previous year’s growth on each main branch by about one third to a bud facing in the required direction to encourage the development of new branches and spurs
  • Cut back any young laterals (sideshoots) growing from the main framework to five or six buds if there is not enough space to allow them to grow as secondary branches
  • Remove any badly-placed shoots
  • On older trees, remove any spur systems that have become overcrowded

Tip-bearing varieties

  • Prune the previous year’s growth on each main branch and the most vigorous laterals (sideshoots) to the first strong bud. Leave unpruned laterals less than 30cm (1ft) long
  • Cut back a proportion of older fruited wood to a young shoot or leaf bud to reduce congestion

Neglected trees

If you inherit an overgrown apple or pear tree it may be possible to bring it back into productive cropping by following the advice on our profile on renovation programmes.

    Young tree in early autumn before winter pruningCut back young laterals to five or six budsPrune out badly placed or competing lateralsAfter pruning the tree should have an open centre with about five main branchesThe diagram shows winter pruning on a mature spur bearing apple treeThe sketch shows winter pruning on a mature tip bearing apple tree

    Problems

    When pruning your apple trees in the winter you may notice signs of apple canker on the stems. Trees can suffer cold damage in winter and spring, which may affect fruit production, and may also develop the habit of biennial bearing where a year of bumper cropping is followed by a year of poor cropping.

    Advertise here

    We love free entry to our local RHS garden

    Lucy, mum, part-time lectureer & RHS member

    Become a member

    Discuss this

    for the site or to share your experiences on this topic and seek advice from our community of gardeners.