Growing Fruit

How to prune old and neglected apple trees

Hoew to prune old apple trees

How to prune an old apple tree

This article covers pruning old and neglected fruit trees, if you would like to learn how to prune younger or freshly planted trees please read ‘An introduction to pruning apple trees‘.

I get asked a lot about how to prune older trees, particularly from gardeners who have moved to a new house and have inherited unruly and unproductive specimens. The other common issue is dealing with a older tree that has been pruned too hard either by a previous owner or by the gardener themselves. I hope this article will help avoid pruning problems while also giving some assistance in correcting mistakes that have already been made.

How to prune a mature appe treeOld and unproductive trees in a commercial orchard would normally be removed (a well pruned new tree will produce far more fruit in the long run) but in the garden there are often other things to consider. You may want to keep an old tree for the beauty it ads to your garden or for sentimental reasons, in this case there is more to consider than just fruit yield.

Reasons for renovating old trees include:

1. To enhance their appearance in the landscape.

2. To restore an old tree with sentimental value.

3. To get better quality fruit.

Pruning apple tree loppersIt is worth bearing in mind that it will take at least 3 years to restore an old tree and in that time you can easily be harvesting quality fruit from a new, healthy semi dwarf tree. It is also not worthwhile trying to save a diseased tree so if the main framework is badly cankered you should remove it and plant a new tree.

Before we get going on tree restoration I am including a list of common pruning terms which should make the following information easier to understand. Don’t get overwhelmed on your first read through, it’s not as complicated as it sounds!

Common Pruning Terms

Dormant – An tree is in a dormant state in the Winter approx between November and February. At this time the leaves have fallen and the tree’s energy is conserved in the roots, trunk and main branches.

Tip bearing – Fruit is produced on on the tips of the branches. Tip bearing varieties are relatively uncommon. Any pruning of of shoot tips will reduce the yield of a tip bearing tree.

Fruiting spur on an apple treeSpur bearing – Fruit is produced on small lateral branches called fruiting spurs. You are more likely to have a spur bearing tree than a tip bearer. You can see a fruiting spur in the photo growing from a small lateral branch.

Partial tip bearers – Many varieties of apple bear fruit on tips and spurs. Partial tip bearers are pruned in the same manner as spur bearers.

Fruiting or flower bud – Fruiting buds (sometimes called flower buds) are larger and more plump than growth buds and have a downy surface. Flower buds produce flowers which mature into fruit.

Wood or Growth bud – Growth buds are smaller than flower buds, they are more pointed and grow flush with the branch.

Outward facing bud – Any growth bud which faces away from the centre of the tree.

Terminal bud – The growth bud at the tip of a branch. Removing the terminal bud will stimulate the buds below to produce woody side shoots which will become new lateral branches.

Spur – Fruiting branches which produce apples, they look like small and stubby compressed stems with fruiting buds.

Leader –The leader is a clear central-leading branch that grows upwards ahead of the other branches.

Apple tree scaffold or lateral branchesScaffold or Lateral branches – Scaffold branches are the main supporting branches of the tree.

Crossing branch – Crossing branches are branches that cross each other creating a dense canopy in the centre of the tree.

Downward branch – A downward branch hangs down from a lateral or scaffold branch, these will never produce fruit and should be removed.

Whorl – A whorl is where three or more small branches originate from the same location, it is common on unpruned mature trees.

Water Sprouts – Water sprouts are thin branches which normally grow straight up from lateral branches.

Remove suckers apple tree pruningSuckers – Suckers are unwanted shoots which grow near the base of the trunk. Most apples are grown on grafted rootstocks to control the size of the tree (the immature tree has been joined to a root from a different variety) so the root suckers will not be the same apple as the above ground tree. Suckers also grow faster and stronger than the tree itself and can even out compete it if they are not removed.

Dead Wood – Dead wood is as the name suggests any dead or diseased wood. Dead wood will be obvious when the tree is in leaf due to lack of any leaves but can also be recognised in Winter as it is dark and brittle, often with bark falling away.

Canker – Canker is the most common apple tree disease and is identified by areas of dead, sunken and crusty bark. Canker is highly likely in old and neglected apple trees, the extent of the disease will decide whether the tree is worth saving.

How to prune a fruit treeWhen to prune and how much to prune.
Pruning should be completed when the tree is dormant. It is far better to prune a tree just before it comes our of dormancy with early March being ideal. Early winter pruning leaves open wounds exposed to the elements at a time when the tree is unable to repair itself. Pruning when the tree is not in its dormant phase will result in excessive new leafy growth as the expense of fruit production.

The reason restoring an older tree will take 3 years or more is that (a) we don’t want to over stress the tree by making too many wounds (remember every cut is an entry point for disease) and (b) we don’t want to stimulate vigourous, uncontrolled growth that will severely reduce yield and adversely effect the shape of the tree. I think it is helpful to remember it took more than one season for a tree to become overgrown so it will take more than one season to correct.

Poor tree pruningThe most common mistake is ‘topping’ shown opposite where excessive pruning has produced a tangle of fast (and weak) growth. This will mean no fruit the following year and a lot of work to restore fruiting for subsequent years. The weak forked joint between fast, new growth and a large limb also leaves the tree more susceptible to storm damage in later years.

There are two types of cuts you use when pruning a tree; thinning cuts and heading cuts. A thinning cut but means removing complete branches right back to the point where the branch joins the trunk. When renovating an old tree nearly all your cuts will be thinning cuts. A thinning cut allows air and light into a tree and doesn’t trigger uncontrolled growth.

A heading cut is used to shape an immature tree. It involves cutting a branch anywhere other than its point of origin and will stimulate growth below the cut. A major heading cut (referred to as ‘topping’) causes a tree to fight back and quickly try to replace all foliage that has been removed. Heading cuts on main branches produce dense upright growth that congest the tree, block out light and severely hamper fruit production. It will take years to sort out. To understand the effect major heading cuts have on a tree it might help to look at ‘apical dominance’ as follows:

Aptical dominance pruning

Apical dominance it the process that allows the tree to grow upright so it can present its leaves to the sun and make energy. Without apical dominance tree growth would be completely random. The leading bud (the last bud at the tip of a branch) produces the hormone auxin that controls the buds below and prevents them producing new branches. If the leading bud is removed (by a heading cut) auxin levels fall and the buds lower down spring into action and produce new lateral branches. Once the leader is gone everyone wants to be king! You can see the result of major heading cuts in the ‘NOT GOOD’ image below.


how to prune an apple tree

The trees environment
Before doing any renovation it is a good idea to concentrate on the trees general health. Plenty of light and good airflow will be essential for a good recovery so cut back any hedging or large shrubs that may be causing congestion. In many cases apple trees are planted too close together so you may need to decide on trees to keep and trees to remove altogether. A slow release feed like good garden compost spread around the base of the tree will also aid recovery. Avoid high nitrogen feeds however as they will stimulate too much new growth.

The tools of the trade
To prune an old tree you will need am good quality secateurs, loppers and a pruning saw or bow saw. You will need the pruning saw or bow saw more in year one and will be using the secateurs and loppers every year thereafter. To keep a fruit tree in top productive condition it will need a small amount of pruning every year.

Marking tree for pruningMy top tip for the day is to get yourself a pack of coloured chalk. I find chalk very helpful for marking the branches I am thinking of removing but also for highlighting the ones I definitely want to keep.

You need to take your time in contemplating the finished shape of your tree and only start cutting with a definite plan in mind. If you are new to this (we all were once) marking the branches will take a lot of the stress and uncertainty out of the job and ensure a cool and calculated result.

Pruning Tools Available Here

Ok, are we ready to start pruning? Here we go……

Pruning fruit tree step 1Year 1 – The first year of pruning is to remove any dead, damaged or diseased wood and to open out the centre of the tree. You should not remove more than 25% of the tree per year or it will try to repair the damage by producing too much new growth. All the cuts you will be making at this stage will be thinning cuts.

First remove any dead wood, it will be obvious from its appearance and lack of buds or new growth. Dead wood is not counted as part of the 25% limit.

Look for damaged wood where two branches have been crossing and rubbing or where branches have come into contact with a neighbouring tree and remove.

Apple canker diseaseAny branches showing signs of canker will need to be taken down. Bear in mind that canker is a fungal disease that can be spread through contact. Even when removing dead wood care should be taken as canker was likely the cause of its demise and may still be present. It is good practice to dip pruning tools in a sterilising solution as you work to avoid spreading the disease.

With an old tree it is better to make a small number of large cuts than a large number of small ones. Neglected trees often have a crowded main branch framework so the objective of pruning is to improve branch spacing, allowing light and air to reach all parts of the tree. The resulting open ‘goblet’ shape is better for ripening fruit, easy picking and yearly pruning.

How to prune and established apple treeIt is likely that you will have one or two large branches crowding the center of the tree. This branch (or branches) need to be removed right down to the union with the trunk.

Old apple tree pruning tipsDo not cut flush but just above the ‘collar’ which is the raised ring where the branch meets the trunk. The cut should be at an angle (often facilitated by the tree anyway) to allow water to run off. If the branch is too large to remove in one go it can be taken down in sections as long as the whole is finally removed. Do not leave partial limbs or stubs, thinning out entire limbs will result in considerably less regrowth. You will be surprised how much difference removing just one large central branch will make in opening up the tree.

Next remove any suckers from the base of the tree, at that stage you are likely to have reached your 25% rule and should leave the tree alone until the following season. This is the point where you will be tempted to do more, don’t. This is the point that separates the amateurs from the pro’s.

Step 2 haowe to prune apple treesYear 2 – Pruning in the second year will be more concerned with shaping the tree and building on the ‘goblet’ shape you initiated in year 1. The goal in pruning a tree is to remove congestion. As we’ve said we are trying to get as much air and light into the tree while also cutting out crossing branches that will rub and be an entry point for disease. As with year 1, the 25% rule still applies.

Spend time at this point contemplating the tree and try to picture the ideal shape to suit your needs. Are the fruiting branches too high up and out of reach? Are there low hanging branches that block access to the tree for picking and pruning? There is an old saying that a tree is well pruned if you can throw your hat through it, keep this in mind as you look at your tree.

How to remove tree branches safelySafely removing large lateral branches
If you are removing a large lateral branch the method is to make 3 cuts to avoid the branch tearing at the trunk as it falls. Make the first cut below the branch about 6 inches from the trunk, this cut should be about a third of the distance into the branch.

The second cut is made about 3 inches below the first, you may need to cut all the way through but it is likely the branch will snap off when you reach the depth of the first cut.

You will be left with a stump with can now be safely removed from the tree. Cut tight to the branch collar but not completely flush with the trunk of the tree.

Downward facing branches – If you look at the main tree diagram above you will see a number of branches that are growing towards the ground. These restrict access to the tree and are shaded from the branches above so won’t fruit well. Remove any downward facing branches cutting back to their point of origin.

Upward growing branches and new sprouts – Remove any branches that grow straight up from any of your main lateral branches. You will also have a large number of new vertically growing whip like stems (water sprouts) as a result of the previous years pruning, snip these off at their base. You will also have water sprouts facing away from the centre of the tree which are valuable as new lateral branches. Leave these until your final pruning.

Prune crossing branches apple treeCrossing branches – Crossing branches congest the tree but also rub off each other creating wounds in the bark. Any cut or wound is a potential entry point for disease so these must also be removed. You can see in the picture opposite 2 rubbing branches that have died, probably from disease that entered at the contact point.

Shading branches – If you have one large branch network growing directly above the other it will be shading the lower one and preventing it from producing good fruit. Choose the healthiest looking branch that fits your vision for the tree and remove the other.

Competing branches – At this point you may have reached your 25% quota but if not you can start some lighter pruning to shape the canopy of your tree. Up till now you have probably been removing large branches but we are now concentrating on the smaller branches growing from your main lateral framework. If branches are growing into the same area and competing with each other they need to be thinned out by removing them at the point where they join the main branch.

Picture bright, open space as prime real estate. If you have a number of small branches competing for that space thin them out. If you have a group of small branches in the same area remove the middle one, chances are it will solve the issue and leave room for the ones either side to breathe.

Pruning apple tree year 3Year 3 – Depending on how much pruning you were able to do in year 2 you may have some more competing branches to remove to open out the tree. It is a simple diagram below but this is the sort of shape you are looking for. Notice how all the branches are exposed to sunlight while all the branches that were being shaded from those above have been removed.

Apple tree prunig diagram

Once you have cut out any competing branches Year 3 is more about fine tuning than major surgery. At this point we need to start to look at how the tree behaves when pruned and how we use this to help it to produce the best fruit. . As you know there are two types of cuts we can make when shaping a tree, thinning cuts and heading cuts. So far you have been using thinning cuts and removing entire branches. Heading cuts are used to shape a tree when young and are not usually required with mature trees unless as part of a restoration. To use heading cuts accurately we need to look at the types of bud on the tree and how they respond to pruning.

Growth and flower buds apple treeGrowth or wood buds (Left)
Growth buds are much smaller than flower buds and grow tight in to the branch or stem. They are slender and more pointed and look more scaly than downy.

Flower buds (Right)
Flower buds are larger and more plump than growth buds and have a downy surface. You will easily see the difference in growth and flower buds by November. Unless you have a tip bearing (unlikely) variety flower buds grow on spurs which are short, stubby branches where the fruit is produced. I a tip bearing variety you will see the flower buds at the branch ends.

When training a tree we are concerned with the growth buds. Heading cuts are made above growth buds and will produce a new branch facing the direction the bud is pointing. For example, if we prune above a growth bud facing in to the towards the centre of the tree we will get an inward growing branch (which we don’t want). By pruning above growth buds facing outwards we encourage the tree to form an open habit rather than a congested one.

As with year 2 you will have a large number of new water sprouts growing both vertically and at an angle from your lateral branches. Remove any vertical sprouts or those facing the centre of the tree. Any sprouts facing away from the trunk can now be trained to become new fruit producing branches or removed if they are growing towards a congested part of the tree.

Apple tree pruning cuts

Stand back and look for open gaps in the framework where there are no branches shading from above. Leave any outward facing sprouts that are growing towards empty areas and remove the rest. It is common for sprouts to grow in pairs, you can remove one and leave the other if it is growing in the direction you want. If you want to modify the direction of a sprout look for a growth bud facing the direction you want and prune above it at an angle of 45 degrees. You can see examples of a good pruning cut above.

As we are using heading cuts at this point (remember apical dominance) be aware that pruning new wood will result in new lateral branches being produced below the cut. Any laterals that don’t fit your plan can be removed later by pruning back to their point of origin.

That’s it!
I hope this article has been helpful. Obviously this a general guide and might not fit your tree exactly but all the same principles apply. Here’s a quick 123 reminder:

  1. Don’t top your tree.
  2. Don’t remove more than 25% of your tree in any given year.
  3. Make a small number of big cuts rather than a big number of small cuts.
  4. Open the center of the tree, make sure all branches have access to light.
  5. Remove the 3 D’s, dead, diseased or damaged wood.
  6. Finally shape you tree using minimal heading cuts.

Read 'An introduction to pruning apple trees'

    1. Andrew

      Hi Anne
      Thank you for your kind comment on our article, I hope you found it helpful. If you have any tips to add please let me know, I will add them to the article.
      I hope you have a productive season ahead!

  1. derek chapman

    Dear Andrew,

    I have a very congested and overgrown medium sized contorted hazel tree which I would love to let air and light into, in order to make it more transparent and decorative.

    Can I use the same pruning technique as you have so brilliantly described for apple pruning, and could I telescope the three-year timescale as the fruit/nut bearing is not a big feature anyway.

    Many thanks…

    1. Andrew

      Hi Derek.
      Yes, you can use the same technique but I would still spread it over the 3 years. The longer pruning regime is not just about fruit production, it is about the amount of growth the tree will do to repair itself. If you prune your hazel very hard in one year only you will produce masses of new growth which will make it even more congested than it was in the first place. Each year remove a third of the overcrowded stems cutting them right back to their base.
      I hope this helps

  2. derek chapman

    Thanks for prompt reply, Andrew, I will go out and get stuck in as soon as the “Son of the Beast (from the East)” allows! Derek…

    1. Andrew

      Hi Derek
      You’re welcome, I hope it all goes well for you. Just remember to remove complete branches rather than leaving sprout producing stumps unless you want to grow a hedge!

    1. Andrew

      Hi Anne
      Thank you very much for your kind comment. I am glad the information made sense to you, I know there is a lot so am very glad you thought it was clearly explained. I hope you have a great season growing season, let me know if I can be of any help in your garden.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Sandi

      Thank you for your comment on our article. The best natural way of getting rid of wireworms is to use a wireworm nematode. A nematode is a microscopic worm that attacks the wireworm larvae and kills it. I don’t know if they are available in your area but it would be worth checking. I hope this helps.


  3. April

    I have an old apple tree that has been severely topped out for years. It looked like a cactus tree when we moved here a year ago. I just let it grow last year and this year in February pruned out spouts and tried to give it new scaffolding type limbs from last years growth. I’m a newby to apple tree pruning, hopefully I didn’t take too much off this year. I now have growth buds all along the top sides of the very old limbs. Can I just “rub” these of to inhibit sprout growth again?FYI You article is the best I’ve managed to find!

    1. Andrew

      Hi April.
      Thank you for your kind comment on our apple tree pruning article. Yes, you can rub off any upward facing growth buds and will hopefully get the tree back under control in the next 2 or 3 years. Let me know if I can be of any further assistance.


  4. Valerie

    Dear Andrew
    We moved into our 1930’s house nearly 40 years ago to 9 espalier Apple trees in a poor state. We were able to keep 2, one of which has given me good apples. This one has suddenly given up. All the apples and leaves are shrivelling, suckers are growing from the base, all the lower branches are bare and brown inside. Does it stand a chance? Should I cut it back now? I wondered about cutting off the lower branches and just trying to keep the top 2. Not concerned about the fruit. Many thanks.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Valerie
      It will always be worth trying to save the tree by cutting away any dead branches so, yes, I would give it a go. I would also try to find the root of the problem. Have the roots been disturbed with any recent garden or house renovation work? Has there been sufficient irrigation in the recent hot weather? Has there been any other recent changes to the trees environment?

  5. Lorenzo

    Hi Andrew. Thanks for providing plain language guidance. I have two questions. You said it is best to prune a tree in March. I had my tree given its first pruning (in probably over ten years) today, January 16 (cold climate Edmonton, Alberta). Is that all right or will it cause a problem? Second – the company I hired said they couldn’t reach the top of the tree to cut back the top branches. Those high branches are way too high for us to reach the fruit and, obviously, block sunlight from getting to the lower branches. Is it all right to cut those high branches, and, if so, do I just use a thinning cut as you described in your article to lower the height?

    1. Andrew

      Hi, March here in NW Europe is the start of Spring, the best time to prune fruit bushes ans trees. I’m not sure how the seasons line up in Alberta. Early pruning won’t cause any problems though.
      Its always wise to thin out the branches of mature trees, and do the heaviest pruning in the top. Remove long shoots in the center and top, but leave some short shoots and most spurs. Remove horizontal branches in the top so they won’t produce suckers. Hope this helps.

  6. Lorenzo Heinrichs

    Thanks Andrew,

    If we have spring in March, it is a blessed year. With the high branches, If they are mature branches, like 3 inches or more, is it ok to cut them horizontally to lower the overall height?

  7. tree trimming

    Tree trimming or pruning is a Technic that requires both skill and knowledge for the desired results. Some of the reasons for trimming include; maintaining a tree’s shape and appearance, human safety and saving an infected tree by strategically pruning all limbs and branches affected by diseases. Pruning tools include; secateurs for young branches vines and flowers, loppers for branches up to 3 inches thick, pruning saws for branches up to 5 inches thick’ hedge shears for hedges and pole pruners for dead wood. Before embarking on the trimming process, it’s essential that one understands the vital tips for proper pruning.

    1. Andrew

      Tree wounds are often painted to protect the cut from rot and fungal infection, however this is bad advice, the paint actually causes more harm than good. Either way it wouldn’t affect the growth of shoots.

  8. Lynn

    We have a 30 year old red delicious apple tree that has grown very tall. Is it safe to reduce the crown by 25%? We live in the D.C. area. Is it too late to prune? Thank you so much for your help. We love this tree and want to preserve it for sentimental reasons.

    1. Andrew

      It should be fine to prune the tree by 25%, using the tips outlined in the article. Its best to prune in late winters while the tree is still dormant. I don’t know what the “D.C. area” means so I’m not sure what your current season will be.

  9. Kory

    Thank you for the wonderful article. We inherited an apple tree with our new house and it looks like it has never been pruned. It did produce over 115lbs of apples this past summer, but it is in desperate need of attention. I have been so afraid to tackle the task of pruning it. Your article was extremely helpful. Should I still follow the 25% rule every year with the tree even though it isn’t a dormant tree?

    1. Andrew

      Hi Kory, the 25% rule still applies. But please bear in mind that 25% is the upper limit, it is not necesasry to prune to that much EVERY year.

  10. Tony

    Thank you for the insightful article. Is it ok to remove the deadwood in the summer? I have inherited a very old apple tree that has not been pruned in a long time, but has several areas of deadwood that I would like to remove.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Tony
      Yes, I would say it is OK to remove deadwood in mid summer. I would avoid doing any pruning immediately after the first flush of growth in the spring as the tree has expended a lot of energy to grow the canopy and will be at it’s weakest. I would wait until mid summer to remove deadwood and would leave any further pruning until just before growth resumes next year.
      I hope this helps

  11. Perry Share

    Great article – looking forward to getting going in Feb/March (NW Ireland)

    I have inherited some badly neglected apple trees, though I suspect they are not that old. They are surrounded by other trees and overgrown hedges that I am gradually cutting back/down as appropriate to let in air and light. A common feature of the apple trees is a long skinny branch shooting up from the middle to 3 or 4 metres in hight. Obviously way too high to ever be any use for getting fruit. How can I get rid of this overly tall centre branch, without encountering the problems of top-heaving sprouting that you mention?

    Any assistance gladly received!

    1. Andrew

      Hi Perry
      Sorry for the late reply to your query. What percentage of the tree is the centre branch? If it is a quarter or less remove it right down to it’s point of origin. This will result in some water sprouts coming from other parts of the tree but these can be removed next season. You get the heavy clump of growth from the top of the branch by ‘topping’, as explained in the article, this won’t happen if you remove the complete branch. To avoid damaging the surrounding branches, take down the centre branch in sections using a pruning saw (https://www.quickcrop.ie/product/curved-pruning-saw). Even if the there is more pruning to be done elsewhere on the tree, leave it alone until next year.

      I hope this helps


  12. Gabrielle Roh

    Andrew, this was so helpful. We bought our home right after the fruit had ripened- it was delicious but I can tell from your article that our trees haven’t been trimmed in years. We have one delicious cherry tree, two apricot trees and one plum tree. Are there any other suggestions you might have for these types of fruit trees? Our cherry tree has hundreds of vertical suckers that are four feet tall.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Gabrielle
      Thank you for getting in touch. I would be inclined to remove 30% of the vertical suckers this year and another 30% next year. You need to clear as much congestion from the centre of the tree as you can to allow light to reach the fruiting branches. I hope this helps. Andrew

    1. Andrew

      Hi Gabrielle
      Yes, you can email me images to andrew@quickcrop.ie. I may take a few days to come back to you as I run a busy horticultural business and you’d be amazed at how many people email me photos off their trees to look at which I fit in when i have time.

  13. james

    thanks for the help, i know nothing about apples, and i suddenly have an orchard full of ancient heritage trees that produce very good apples, all different, and all worth saving, if i can. will be following your advice as diligently as i am able.

    however, i’ve done a little research into hazelnuts, and although i cannot claim much practical experience, the common knowledge there seems to be the opposite of your advice to Derek, above..

    in my understanding the best practise for hazelnuts is coppicing, in which you literally cut the whole tree down, every seven to ten years, and let it grow back from the water sprouts surrounding the stool. the adult trunks and branches of hazelnuts are quite short lived, and are best removed periodically, to rejuvenate the tree.

    however, i must admit i have not practised what i am saying here. i have an obvious coppice of about five hazels to manage, which has been allowed to mature, unfortunately, and has become very overcrowded, while i’m still working to persuade the owner to coppice.

  14. Donald McLintock

    Thanks Andrew,
    I agree with other posters, this was the most helpfully comprehensive practical explanation of restorative fruit tree pruning I have read anywhere. The theoretical explanations and diagrams added a lot.

    My question is to ask if restoring Cordon apples and pears requires different solutions?

    I have planted rows of Apple cordons twice in the past so I am happy with formative pruning theory and practice.

    I have been tasked with restoring a row of 5 very overgrown CORDON apple trees in a Devon allotment because cordon runs beside a main access path in the allotments.
    The plot holder is new this year but is covid shielding.

    The trees look quite young and very healthy with no sign of canker but look and as though they have not been pruned for 2-3 years, so they have lots of long (75-100cm) first laterals and have some excess head growth from a previous rescue attempt.
    Some branches have formed large slurs with sub laterals already 30 – 40 cm.
    All the trees have fruit on the older smaller spurs nearer the bole.
    Top wire is 1.8 metres from ground level
    Complications are a sloping (partly terraced) site with the trees planted on the uphill side within 15cm a restraint wall of scaffold planks 2 high ( 40cm )
    Sadly also the posts are wobbling and the wires are cutting into the main bole of most of the trees.
    neighbouring plot holders are looking after the soil and planting in the rest of the plot.
    So .. it’s early July now.
    The trees are very vigorous and it’s a damp mild climate so there are conflicting thoughts over summer pruning.
    I am content if you could give a brief strategic response.
    I have necessary tools and will not be wound painting.

    I personally cannot grub them out and start again but if that is your advice then I shall relay that to the plot holder via the allotment manager


    1. Andrew

      Hi Donald. Personally I would leave them, especially if they are healthy and are not showing any signs of canker. Almost any healthy tree can be brought back to good yield, it just takes someone with a bit of vision and a good knowledge off the basics, by the sound of your post, you are the man for the job. I would be inclined to with until the treen are dormant for any substantial pruning and to replace the supports and prevent wires cutting which will eventually lead to a problem. I hope this helps. Andrew

  15. Donald McLintock

    Hi Andrew.
    I’ll talk to the site manager about doing something about the posts and wires.

    go raibh maith agat as an gcabhair


  16. Chrissie

    Hi Andrew, Thank you for all the above. I have an apple tree that’s probably 50 years old that has quite knobbly bark but it seems healthy and produces lots of lovely apples. This year however there is one branch where the bark is coming off and I think it is has died, but it has another branch coming off it that is alive but the leaves have started going yellow. I keep watering it. Should I cut the dead branch off below the one with yellow leaves?

  17. Filomenita Mongaya

    Just thankful I discovered your trail here. alas, my husband already cut branches and top of our apple tree at this moment when it is brimming with fruits- he does the same with decorative trees and even rhododendrons and azaleas which are the tone setting plants in our 1100 sqm property. He is older and stronger than me so by sheer brute force, he gets his way but I am more the Equal Opportunity Gardener and give any plant an opportunity to grow and be counted. He is European and I am Asian. I do not want to dominate nor control others, not even plants unless they are harmful to others. I am interested in hearing from you regarding conflict in households regarding plants and the garden. I am the one who does the jam making of the berries and fruits. I also try to repot tree saplings so I can give them to friends and acquaintances who want to grow a tree in their garden! Any essentlal rules about succesful growing of trees such as maple, oak, cherry, hazelnuts- Appreciate any suggestions that will help my predicament and situation. Mange Tak. Many Thanks.

  18. Jackie B

    Hello I am moving into a old home. There is an apple tree it doesn’t look old but all of the branches are bent downwards. Apples appear to be good! I have no expertise in planting but I am learning and want to take good care of this tree. Could oi possibly send you a video or photos of this tree for advice? Thanks so much!!

  19. Andy Read

    Hi I’m about to start renovation of my two apple trees which haven’t been well cared for by the previous owners. My main issue is that’s there’s been some previous pruning where the remains of the branch have rotted out leaving a deep hole into the trunk. This dosent seem to affect fruiting or further growth but I’d really appreciate knowing how to treat these before it has any lasting effects.

  20. Billie

    Can dead wood be removed at any time or should I wait to do it all in March? I can see the dead ones now because they have no leaves so I’m wondering if it’ll be easier now vs in the spring?

  21. Sharon kimmel

    We have apple trees that were planted in 1948 when we bought the dairy farm. I don’t know that they have ever been pruned. They don’t look so good right now. Is it worth trying to save them? Most of them have very large limbs. They have not fruited in years. We hate to cut them down do to sentimentality.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Sharon. I would not cut down your apple trees if they are healthy. Any fruit tree can be brought back into production with restorative pruning, if they are very large you may need a professional to do it but make sure it’s someone knowledgeable about fruit trees, there are a lot of ‘experts’ out there that will butcher you tree!

  22. David Martin

    A church has an Apple tree planted about 10′ from the building. It is growing rapidly and now hits the building and towers way above the roof. They want it controlled which means removing about half its height and width. It is a very healthy and beautiful tree being grown as an ornamental. It also produces nice fruit. How do I control it?

    1. Andrew

      Hi David. You can reduce the size of the tree but removing a couple of large branches over a year or two. Just remember, whatever branch you are removing needs to be taken back to it’s point of origin. I hope this helps.

  23. Peggy Gardner

    Andrew, I’ve been reading a lot about apple trees and this post made me go — that’s it!!! that’s the picture of our mature apple tree. We are new caretakers of two very large, neglected trees, which produced a lot of fruit this summer at the ends of the feathery branches you show in your picture. The branches with apples all hang down…nothing like the pictures I see everywhere of a nicely pruned tree LOL. We did our first prune last Feb and will do another this year hopefully we can get them to a more manageable size and producing less, but better apples. We had a mix of good size and small apples that fell off before maturity. This summer I mostly focused on good hygiene and soil and next year we can focus on pests. I’ve gotten such an appreciation for those who do this well.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Peggy. I am delighted you found the article helpful, you sound like an excellent tree caretaker and expect you will be rewarded with a super productive tree. I hope it all works out for you! Andrew

  24. Katrina

    Hi Andrew I just wanted to say thanks so much for your article. It was so helpful and I’m straining at the bit to get started on our inherited apple trees in West Wales – in a very restrained way of course!! your article was great for a newbie like me and really showed me what to do. It is very much appreciated. Thanks.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Katrina. I am delighted you found the article helpful, I hope it is of some assistance when you are pruning your trees. Andrew

  25. Michael Hensey

    Dear Andrew, what an amazingly comprehensive, clearly written and easy to follow guide, fantastic. As an emerging gardener who has become an addict since Covid, thanks you. One question please can I apply the same approach to my single Plum Tree? Thank you Michael.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Michael. Thank you for your kind comment. Yes, broadly speaking you can apply the same method to plum trees. If you are interested in tree fruit and becoming an expert I would highly recommend ‘The Fruit Tree Handbook’ by Ben Pike. ISBN:978 1 900322 74 4. I hope this helps. Andrew

  26. Andrew Mackintosh

    Thank you for an informative article and thread. We have about 12 40-year old cordon apples and pears, inherited when we moved into the house about 25 years ago. The cordons had been neglected for a few years and I have been summer and winter pruning them but the spurs are in general still a long way away from the main trunk. I dont seem to be able to grow new spurs from closer to the trunk. The trees have been fed, the blossom is good most years but the fruiting is very patchy and I am doing a lot of pruning for very little fruit! Is it possible they are too old at 40 years and I should replace them? or any other suggestions?
    Thank you


  27. Tracy

    Hi Andrew, we are in the process of renovating an old, large apple tree (year 3). Where the tree has been badly pruned in the past water is collecting and causing rot to set in. The cut is too close to the main trunk to cut it out. Is there any thing I can do to stop the rot or at least slow it down? It has been suggested to me that planting a plant, such as a fern, in the wound would help. Do you think this would help? I really enjoyed reading your article. Many thanks Tracy

    1. Andrew

      Hi Tracy
      It is difficult to advise without seeing the problem area. I would be inclined to remove where possible, even if close to the main trunk. You don’t say if this is a limb stub or if it is rot on a productive branch?

  28. Eli

    Hi Andrew,

    Thank you very much for the information. Every year mid summer and orange bugs live in the curled apple tree, by August the orange bug turn black. They limit the leaves from growth and eventually the leaves die. I don’t want to get rid of it as it is very dear to my wife. We live in Edmonton, Alberta, a very cold climate, zone 3b. Any advise. Thank you Advance.

  29. Melanie and John

    We too wish to thank you for this clearly written informative guide to apple tree pruning and rejuvenating. You got us both on the same page as to when and how and how much!

  30. Prudence Anderson Leusch

    We are thinking of hiring a professional to prune our apple tree. We just moved here a year ago and we were thinking of cutting the tree down. We tasted the apples and we were blown away! They were Super sweet!
    There were very few that were edible though. Most were misshapen and some were brown where the stems are.
    I LOVE this article!
    We haven’t seen any bugs or anything. It is planted in our open bak yard. There is an Asian pear tree near it, but not too close. The pear tree bears great fruit. Last Summer it did produce too many pears though.
    Any advice about either tree? (especially the apple tree)

    1. Andrew

      Hi Prudence
      It is very difficult to advise without seeing the tree. I would get a professional pruner as you suggest but make sure it is someone familiar with fruit trees rather a tree surgeon more used to ornamental trees. I would find out if you have a local orchard or fruit producer and go from there.

  31. Wayne

    Hi Andrew,
    As the others have stated, thanks for the great advice. My father was a topper and now his tree is dominated with knuckles (3 to 4 shoots) of tall watersprouts. I have thinned larger branches from the center (up to my 25%). In the future for those not in center, do I just keep one sprout per “knuckle” and then head it to its lowest outward growing bud or cut the whole knuckle off down to a fork? Thank you.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Wayne. It is difficult to bring a topped tree back into shape and takes time but you are going the right direction. It is difficult to advise without seeing the tree but if the new sprout can be trained to make up the new framework of the tree I would retain it.

  32. Nick

    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for this writeup, I came across it last summer when I was was looking at what to do with my overgrown old apple tree. I bookmarked it to come back to in March. Now that I’m looking at my tree closer, it appears that whoever first grew it did some shaping in how it grew so that its shape is nonstandard. About 5 or 6 cm above the ground, the tree is separated into 4 similar sized “trunks,” so that there is no clear leader. A couple of the them are then forked, so the tree’s shape consists of 8 large branches that grow up and cross over and around each other. Should I treat each of these large branches as trunks, and trim my 25% from the branches that grow from these 8? Or should I consider cutting off one or two of these large branches that are the most intertwined, in order to free up space near the center?

    1. Andrew

      Hi Nick
      As I always say, it is difficult to give an accurate answer without seeing the tree. I would be inclined to take out one or two of the 8 large branches completely to open up the centre of the tree. I would then practice the ‘3 D’s (remove dead, diseased and damaged wood) taking care that the total material removed (including the large branches) is not over 25% of the tree.

  33. Ian

    I have two questions here

    Is early April too late to remove any dead wood?

    Also our small apple tree that was inherited when we moved in only has branches on one side so the leader basically goes up at an angle.

    I think this was done to avoid contact with a large walnut tree as the canopy overlaps. We have the walnut tree in check – pruning only every 2-3 years.

    How do we start to encourage growth on the other side and / or prevent it on the other side?

    1. Andrew

      Hi Ian, the first question has a simple answer! Yes, go ahead and remove the deadwood. They’re just coming out of dormancy now. The second question is more difficult. You could cut some branches right back on the outer side and cut them halfway back on the inner side to try to encourage new growth there but it is unlikely to be effective if the walnut tree is shading it as the tree will naturally reach for the light. An alternative solution might be to move the apple tree.

  34. Lyn

    I just bought a house with an old apple tree that was topped when young, causing it to grow 5 large branches that fan out. Large sections of bark is off of the branches near the center, but they are continuing to grow at about a 45 degree angle and produced good fruit last year.

    There is a cluster of suckers growing straight up the center.

    My questions are:
    1) Should I lop off a large branch and let a sucker grow?
    2) Should I shorten the 5 large branches that I assume will be eventually too heavy and break?
    3) There appears to be no canker but the bare wood has some bug holes in it. Do I spray?
    4) Is there any hope for this noble, old tree? It’s a great kid tree for climbing.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Lyn
      Yes, I would remove the suckers from the centre of the tree. It doesn’t sound like you need to remove one of the 5 branches but it they are getting heavy towards their ends you can do some thinning cuts to remove some of the branches, just always cut back to a join. I am assuming the reason for the missing bark is that it is a climbing tree for kids rather than disease? Unfortunately, if it continues to get heavy traffic the bark will not be able to heal.
      I hope this helps

  35. Jean Sopko

    Hello Andrew!
    Thank you for your pruning advice. But my big, old, neglected, topped (Macintosh?) tree doesn’t look like any of your illustrations. On the left side, 11 feet up, it has a branch about 20 feet in length. About 4 feet above that is an identical branch that runs parallel. Both of these flower and fruit but they’re too high for me to reach. Above those, there are a few higher branches of more reasonable length but they don’t produce much. There is no leader. Then on the right side there are a few branches that fruit but much too high for me to reach. I’ve removed dead wood, crossing branches and suckers in previous years, but what can I do to encourage lower branches? Is it feasible to graft in shoots from the same tree? BTW, it was probably lightning that topped it — it’s a BIG tree! Please help.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Jean
      It is very difficult to advise without seeing the tree but it sounds like it needs some substantial work to bring back to be a practical fruiting tree to pick from. I am not being avoiding the question but advise getting a professional tree surgeon with experience with fruit trees to advise and carry out the work. I always find it is a good idea to check for any local fruit nurseries or orchards to see who they would recommend, it is simply not possible for me to give meaningful advice without seeing the tree.Sorry I can’t help with this one.

  36. Neenah

    Thank you for your explanation of the “why” of each step! This has completely clarified what I need to do in our situation.
    Our apple is relatively happy and produces mountains of small mealy apples (I’m okay with that because the birds love them) but she looks a monsterous mess right now. She’s on the northeast corner of our house and has grown at an angle to find sun. In our effort to create a more traditional tree shape we’ve left some large water shoots; I realize now I need to prune how is best for the tree and just allow her to have “character”. We have one spot where we keep pruning a branch halfway back for walking clearance that of course keeps growing back fuller; that one will be going too. We and our tree thank you.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Neenah. Great, I am delighted you found the article helpful, it sounds like your tree is in good hands!

  37. Jen Kuhn

    Hi Andrew, First of all this is an excellent article! Covered all the basics in a clear and concise way, and gave us just enough vocabulary to understand without overwhelming. That is not easy to do!

    I think I already know the answer to my question but thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask anyways. I have a very old apple tree that was already here when we moved in and already old and neglected, and we have done nothing with it in 17 tears. I never was concerned with fruit production, I just loved the big old tree in the middle of our 2 acres of lawn. We are practitioners of benevolent neglect, which isn’t always the best for the tree. The tree had a large split between the two trunks, which has widened over the years. About 3 weeks ago I heard a huge ‘crack!’ and assumed the tree had finished splitting. When I checked, that was not the case. One of the central two trunks had split down the middle lengthwise, revealing a hollowed out, rotted center.

    My question. Is it possible to keep this tree alive? Again, it doesn’t need to look perfect nor produce apples. To be honest my son is getting married here next October and the tree is very sentimental to him. If I can keep it going for one more year he probably would like to get married under it.

    If not, if it is a complete loss, I may just cut all the small branches off and plant nasturtiums and morning glories to climb all over the remaining wood. Sort of a sculptural homage to the tree that brought him so many good memories. But if it were still alive I know it would mean more to him.

    Thanks so much, and thanks for all you do.

    1. Andrew

      That’s a very difficult one Jen. Normally, if the centre of a tree is rotten, it would be best to take it down as it could be a hazard if it fell.It’s very hard to give advice on this one without seeing it, I’m afraid. I would love to be able to tell you what to do. We get a lot of questions on this article and unfortunately the issues are very difficult to diagnose without actually seeing the tree. It might do no harm to get in a tree surgeon to take a look in this instance as the tree could be the focal point of a very special day. Wishing you and your son all the very best.

  38. Patti Kaiser

    Your information/advice is SO appreciated. I have an apple tree in my front yard that is in terrible shape and VERY sentimental. I love that you get that. We planted a cherry blossom tree and somewhere along the way it started giving us truckloads of granny Smith apples. Would it be ok if I send you a picture for your thoughts before I have it cut down? I’ve regularly had it treated for insects as well as fertilized but it hasn’t helped. I want so much to save it.
    Thank you SO much.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Patti, it is possible that the cherry top was grafted onto an apple root stock. It could be that the cherry tree died off and the apple root sent up shoots. It’s very interesting & unusual. While I would love to be able to give advice, unfortunately it is very difficult, even with photos – I have tried in the past. In this case I would be inclined to call in a tree surgeon. I can also recommend The Fruit Tree Handbook by Ben Pike – it’s a really comprehensive guide. Wishing you all the best. Andrew

  39. sarah burke

    Dear Andrew – this article is godsend to me as I’ve just inherited an apple tree tree that has never, ever been pruned. The previous owner told me that it was planted when the house was built in 1929!

    It is massive, maybe 15-18 feet tall and this year produced sacks of fruit, healthy enough, decent sized but fairly sour and tasteless now mostly rotting in my compost heap and attracting wasps!

    Your article gives me a good plan for the next 3 years but I was disappointed to see the advice not to top. Our neighbours have indicated that they would like the height reduced and there is no way we could ever reach the fruit at the top. Looking through your answers above could I plan to selectively prune the topmost branches back to their source over a few years? Maybe using the 25% rule there also?

    Thankyou for any advice or tips.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Sarah & congratulations on the new acquisition! Provided the limbs that are to be removed from the tree are taken out back to their point of origin, you will be able to reduce the height. This is not possible in every single case but should be the general rule. Cutting the tops off the branches (topping) will make the problem worse over time and reduce the yield of the tree so there is no advantage to this practice. Look at the upper most branches and follow to a junction closest to where you want the finished height of the tree to be, the junction is where you need to cut. It is also very important to do this over a 3 year period or the resulting vigorous growth will be similar to the growth produced by topping the tree. Wishing you the very best.

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