Gardening: Prune apple trees when they’re dormant

Gardening: Prune apple trees when they’re dormant

When apple trees are pruned yearly, it becomes a quick and routine job. When the trees are left for a number of years, more needs to be removed making the job harder and more time consuming. Apple trees should be pruned when they are dormant. The goal of pruning an apple tree is improve fruit production, more and larger fruit.

If the apple tree is mature, look to see how it was originally pruned. Older trees were often pruned with an open center or vase is style with the central leader is removed at 30 – 26 inches (.75 to 1 meter) from the ground. Low side branches are pruned to grow tall and wide with an open center making the tree easy to climb and the fruit readily assessable. At present time, young trees are rarely pruned using this method as the open centers often results in sunscald from the heat of the early spring sun reflecting off the snow.

Today pruning an apple tree by modifying its central leader is considered acceptable practice. The central leader is removed once 7 – 12 strong lateral or side branches have formed. Removing the top of the leader reduces the tree’s height, encouraging the tree to spread outwards. In this method, young trees are trained to a central modified leader with branches radiating in 4 directions; like an X. Ideally there should be 3 different levels of branches growing from the main leader. Each level should be at least 6 in. (15 cm) higher or lower than other branches.

Space between the branches insures that air circulates throughout the tree and branches do not rub. The tree is also pruned in the shape of a pyramid. Shorter branches at the top, ensuring the bottom branches receive sunlight.

Apple trees that are grafted on semi-dwarfing or dwarfing rootstock do not need their central leader removed as they will not reach an unmanageable height. Instead, these trees are pruned to remove excess branches and foliage which encourages the tree to put its energy into the fruit.

When pruning apple trees, start by removing all water sprouts, suckers and dead wood. Water sprouts are new branches that grow 2 or 3 feet upwards in a season. Suckers are new growth that comes from the roots not the grafted part of the tree. If left intact, the suckers will outgrow the grafted section of the tree, using all the nutrients, which eventually will kill the tree above the graft.

Next eliminate crossing branches by removing the branch with the least desirable characteristics; pointing towards the center of the tree, torn bark, weak angle or smaller in diameter.

Remove branches that duplicate or hang under other branches as the fruit on these branches will not be in the sun

Remove or modify narrow angled branches as they produce weak unions and are likely to split under stress of a crop of apples or a heavy snow. Young branches can be trained to grow at a wider, ideally 90˚angle by either pulling the branch down with a rope which is attached to the ground or by attaching a milk jug or water bottle to the branch and filling it with enough water to cause the branch to go downward to the desired angle. Remove the weights or rope when the branches hold the desired shape.

Prune back the upper and outer branches to keep the tree manageable

Fruiting wood which is thicker and grows slower forms on growth over 2 years old. As the tree ages, remove older fruiting wood from the center of the tree and keep the new wood closer to the end of the branches where the apples will receive more sunlight and be easier to pick.

When pruning, keep an eye of the pile of wood that has been removed from the tree. Remove over a ¼ of the tree in a year and the tree will become stressed and put forth numerous suckers and watersprouts.

Remember to set aside time on a warm day when the trees are dormant annually to prune the apple trees. The result will be fewer but lager fruit.

Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist that lives close to Rocky Mountain House. She can be reached at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which causes COVID-19, emerge from the surface of cells isolated from a patient in the U.S. and cultured in a lab in a 2020 electron microscope image. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-HO, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories
Alberta adds 463 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday

The central zone has 818 active cases

Red Deer teacher Janelle Van Tetering had her students write letters to attach to Blankets of Hope, which will be donated to the Mustard Seed. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer teacher, students donate ‘Blankets of Hope’ to those in need

A Red Deer teacher and her students are giving warm blankets and… Continue reading

RCMP have charged a Sylvan Lake man for allegedly defrauding five people of more than $100,000.
Advocate file photo
20-year-old woman killed in collision: Blackfalds RCMP

A 20-year-old woman was killed in a collision on Saturday, says Blackfalds… Continue reading

Patrick Malkin, co-owner of The Granary Kitchen, says he wants the provincial government to lift COVID-19 restrictions that shutdown in-person dining. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer restaurant owner ‘frustrated’ in-person dining restrictions are still in place

Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced the restrictions won’t yet be eased this past Thursday

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta identifies 573 new COVID-19 cases, 13 deaths on Saturday

There are currently 9,727 active cases of the virus in the province

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

Toronto Maple Leafs' Alexander Kerfoot, centre, tries to get the puck past Calgary Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom, right, as Noah Hanifin looks on during first period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Morgan Reilly’s three assists lifts Maple Leafs to 3-2 win over Flames

Leafs 3 Flames 2 CALGARY — Morgan Reilly’s three assists helped the… Continue reading

Green Bay Packers' Adrian Amos (31) reacts after intercepting a pass intended for Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Mike Evans during the second half of the NFC championship NFL football game in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Road warriors: Bucs win 31-26 at Green Bay, reach Super Bowl

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ road… Continue reading

People arrive to be tested for COVID-19 at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, January 24, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Too soon to know if Canada’s COVID-19 case decline will continue, Tam says

MONTREAL — It’s still too soon to know whether the recent downward… Continue reading

Flowers are seen at the front door of Dr. Denis Vincent's dental practice in North Vancouver, B.C. on March 31, 2020, after he died of COVID-19. The British Columbia Dental Association has written a letter to Premier John Horgan urging him to include dentists in a priority group for the COVID-19 vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dentists, teachers disappointed they won’t be prioritized for vaccine in B.C.

VANCOUVER — Dentists and teachers are among the groups that are disappointed… Continue reading

Indiana Pacers guard Justin Holiday (8) shoots over Toronto Raptors forward DeAndre' Bembry (95) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Anunoby’s hot hand helps short-handed Raptors beat Pacers

Raptors 107 Pacers 102 INDIANAPOLIS — OG Anunoby scored a season-high 30… Continue reading

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

OTTAWA — Under fluorescent lights, Wendy Muckle surveys the supervised consumption site… Continue reading

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) headquarters Connaught Building is pictured in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. nbsp; THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Taxpayers’ watchdog sees complaints spike, raising worries about pandemic tax season

OTTAWA — Canada’s taxpayers’ ombudsperson says his office has seen a steep… Continue reading

Most Read