Apples and pears: winter regulated pruning

Traditional winter pruning of apples and pears can result in the tree getting a little bigger each year. To prevent this happening and avoid the need for occasional renovation consider winter regulated pruning.

Pruning out an apple branch

Quick facts

Suitable for Apple and pear bushes
Timing November to early March
Difficulty Moderate

Suitable for...

Regulated pruning is carried out to control the size of apples and pears trained as free-standing bushes (or standards) that have reached the optimum size for the rootstock that they are grafted on. This pruning technique is suitable for both spur- and tip- (including partial tip-) bearing apples and pears, as sections of the branch framework are removed rather than individual shoots.

If you are new to fruit pruning or are not feeling very confident, you may like to continue with traditional winter pruning or try our pruning made easy page instead.

For young apple and pear trees start with our guide on initial pruning, followed by winter pruning.

Trees that are very overgrown will require renovation.

When to carry out regulated pruning

The ideal time to prune is any time from leaf fall to late winter, typically November to March in the British Isles. The tree is dormant at this time.

How to prune

Once your apple or pear tree reaches the height it should be for the rootstock, carry out regulated pruning as follows:

  • Use a pruning saw. There will be little secateur work
  • Cut out all dead, diseased and larger crossing branches
  • Prune out strong branches in the centre of the bush in order to keep it open, but leave smaller branches - fruiting spurs and weaker laterals. Stop pruning the branch leaders. They will grow less vigorously if left unpruned and often form fruit buds
  • However, where branches have become too long, cut these out completely either to the main trunk or, preferably, to a lower, wider angled, outward facing branch. This branch should be one third the diameter of the branch being removed
  • When deciding what wood to remove bear in mind that the tips of branch leaders should be at least 40-45cm (16-18in) apart
  • Take your time, observing from a distance and evaluating which branches to keep and which to remove
  • Make sure no stubs are left; cut to a branch collar or side branch
  • If the bush is a spur bearer, check for congested spur systems. Thin out spurs  with secateurs so they are spaced 10-15cm (4-6in) apart and remove spurs that are weak or crowded
  • Prune out no more than ten to twenty per cent of the canopy in one year.

Problems

Watershoots

As sections of the branch framework are removed the pruned tree is likely to produce watershoots - i.e. tall, upright branches, that produce no flowers or fruit. Minimise the risk of numerous watershoots by pruning no more than twenty  per cent of the canopy in one year.

If watershoots arise, there is no need to remove all of them but they will need thinning out;

  • Consider if any strong, well placed watershoots may be used for as replacement branches in the future and tip prune them by about a quarter to an outward facing bud to encourage branching
  • If well placed and not causing congestion of the crown, leave some of the weaker (thinner and less upright) watershoots unpruned. They may produce fruit buds and act as secondary branches
  • Remove any remaining water shoots if 23cm (9in) or more in length at the point of origin 
  • If you spot new watershoots, rub them off during the growing season as they appear

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