Pruning Mature or Neglected Trees

When pruning apple trees, here is a list of situations you always want to prune out.

  • Suckers
  • Stubs or broken branches
  • Downward-growing branches
  • Rubbing or criss-crossing branches
  • Upward growing interior branches
  • Competing leaders
  • Narrow crotches
  • Whorls

On young and old trees, remove all suckers that grow up from the rootstock. The best time to do this is during the summer when suckers are least likely to re-sprout. You can either prune them off, or you can use Sucker Stopper which is a chemical to discourage any suckers from re-growing.

  • Types of Trees

    Full-size Trees

    Pruning Mature and Neglected Trees, SIR ProgramMature trees usually already have their shape determined, so it really comes down to maintaining their shape and size.

    Every year:

    • Remove broken or diseased branches
    • Crossing limbs
    • Weak stems
    • Any branches growing inward to the tree’s center
    • Any growing vertically or straight down
    • Thin out enough new growth to allow light to filter into the canopy when the tree has leafed out so the fruit can ripen and color properly
    • Shorten any branches that are too long to avoid leggy growth
    • Shape tree evenly and remember apples flower and fruit on old wood, so head back new growth to direct energy back into the flowers and fruit


    Also, if in the past years too many apples have formed and crowded each other out, you can thin the spurs to only a few per branch. This will allow enough light and air to circulate around to avoid diseases and small, puny fruit. 

  • Neglected Trees

    Many people will purchase a house where an apple tree was planted on the property several years ago. Often, the previous owners did not take the time to properly prune the tree. The tree has become bushy and weak and will produce very poor quality apples. Such a tree requires extensive corrective pruning.

    The main objective in pruning such a tree is to try to open up the interior to allow good light penetration.

    The first step is to remove all the upright, vigorous growing shoots at their base that are shading the interior. It is necessary to select 3 to 5 lower scaffold branches with good crotch angles and spaced around the tree. Limbs with poor angles, and excess scaffold limbs, should be removed at their base. In some cases it is advisable to spread the corrective pruning over two to three seasons. When severe pruning is done in the winter, the trees should not be fertilized that spring.  

  • Dwarf Trees

    Prune dwarf varieties every year the same way you would prune a full-size tree. Maintain its height by cutting back the central leader by 2 to 3 feet (.61-.91 m), depending on the vigor of the tree, to a strong lateral. In future years, you may have to repeat this to keep the tree the height you want.