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Apple and pear trees trained as free-standing bushes are best pruned every winter to ensure a good cycle of fruiting wood. Trees that are not pruned become less productive and congested with old branches. The aim is to create an open goblet shape with a framework of four to five main branches.
Young tree in early autumn before winter pruning
Winter pruning is used for apples and pears grown as free-standing bush or standard trees after the initial framework of branches is formed. If you are new to fruit pruning or are not feeling very confident, try our pruning made easy page instead.
For pruning one- and two-year-old trees see our page on pruning young apples and pears.
Restricted forms such as espaliers, cordons, fans and pyramids are managed with summer pruning, although some pruning is done in winter in their formative training.
Pruning should be carried out when the tree is dormant, between leaf fall and bud burst (usually between November and early March).
Traditionally spur- and tip- bearing trees were pruned in different ways. However, current pruning techniques are very similar for both as it does not involve the rigorous routine shortening of all young growth.
If the tree is too vigorous, sending out an excessive amount of growth each year, consider also carrying out some pruning in summer. Summer pruning depletes the tree's resources and will help reduce vigour.
Note: this is done it addition to winter pruning and so is a little different from the summer pruning that is carried out on restricted fruit trees such as cordons and espaliers.
Even with regular winter pruning, apple and pear trees are likely to become gradually larger making picking more difficult and potentially outgrowing the available space. Ultimately trees may require renovation.
To avoid the need to renovate, when the tree has reached an optimum size for the rootstock that it is grafted on, regulated pruning can be used instead of the process described here. Regulated pruning controls the size without affecting the fruiting potential of the tree.
When pruning your apple trees in the winter you may notice signs of apple canker on the stems. Lichens and other growths are also noticeable in winter; these are not damaging to the tree but can indicate low vigour.
Trees can suffer cold damage in winter and spring, which may affect fruit production.
Be aware of biennial bearing where a year of bumper cropping is followed by a year of poor cropping.
Apples and pears: growing and training as cordons
Apples and pears: pruning made easy
Apples and pears: pruning new trees
Apples and pears: renovating old trees
Apples and pears: summer pruning
Apples and pears: winter regulated pruning
Apples: identifying fruit buds
Espalier training trees
Fan-trained trees: initial pruning
Fan-trained trees: established pruning
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In this fully revised edition, you’ll find updated advice by the RHS experts on what, when and how to prune.
RHS members can get exclusive individual advice from the RHS Gardening Advice team.
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