Apples and pears: pruning new trees

Young apple and pear trees need good formative pruning to establish productive trees with a balanced branch system. Pruning is not difficult and taking the time to get it right in the early years should lead to fewer problems later on.

Winter pruning of a young apple tree

Quick facts

Suitable for One- and two-year-old apple and pear trees
Timing November to March
Difficulty Moderate

Suitable for...

This method of pruning is suitable for one- and two-year-old apple and pear trees that are to be trained into the traditional shape of a free-standing bush. Correct formative pruning of young trees creates an attractive specimen, with a balanced branch system, that is easy to manage and has a long and productive life.

This pruning form can also be used for training half-standard and standard apple trees, the crown simply being developed on a taller clear trunk - about 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) for half-standard and 1.8-2.1m (6-7ft) for standard - than the normal bush tree. Vigorous rootstocks are required; MM111 or M25. Though mostly found as mature trees in gardens, such tree forms may be needed for filling gaps in old orchards or for specimen trees in new gardens.

For information on restricted forms of training see our pages on cordons, stepovers and espaliers.

Buying apple and pear trees

When buying a new apple or pear always select plants with a good root system and sturdy stems, or buy mail order from a reputable nursery.

One-year-old trees are called ‘Maidens’ and are sold as feathered or unfeathered.

  • Feathered maidens:  Are  trees that developed side shoots from the main stem. This saves a year of formative pruning. Buy one with a well-balanced, goblet-shaped branch system. These trees may be more expensive than unfeathered maidens
  • Unfeathered maidens (maiden whip):  Are trees without sideshoots, forming just a single stem. They are often cheaper than feathered maidens and almost as satisfactory. Some cultivars do not produce feathered maidens

When to prune

Pruning should be carried out when the tree is dormant, between leaf fall and bud burst (usually between November and early March).

How to prune new apple and pear trees

When pruning, always use sharp secateurs to make pruning cuts, just above and sloping away from a bud.

Feathered maiden

First year

  • Cut back the central stem just above a wide-angled, strong shoot, approximately 75cm (2½ft) from the ground, ensuring there are three to four evenly-spaced shoots below. If a dwarf bush is required for apple trees on very dwarfing such as M27, cut back to strong shoot at 60cm (2ft)
  • Shorten these branches by half to two-thirds, cutting just above an outward-facing bud
  • Remove any remaining lower branches

Unfeathered maiden

First year

  • Prune to a bud 75cm (2½ft) above the ground, with three or four healthy buds below. Prune apple cultivars on very dwarfing rootstocks, such as M27, to 60cm (2ft)
  • Such pruning will stimulate production of strong vigorous shoots from which the primary branches can be selected

Second year

  • As a result of the initial pruning the tree often produces a very strong topmost shoot. If the topmost shoot is too vertical and dominant, remove it completely cutting above a wider-angled side branch instead
  • Select the best three to five shoots to form the main framework of branches and remove any others. Shorten the selected shoots by half, cutting just above an outward-facing bud to encourage the formation of a goblet-shaped branch structure. If the shoot is too horizontal prune to an upward-facing bud
  • Remove the remaining lower branches

The year following (second year for feathered and third year for unfeathered maidens)

  • Shorten the previous year’s growth on the main stems/branches (primary branches) by one third, cutting just above a healthy outward-facing bud, leaving eight to ten branches to form a permanent framework
  • Leave the side branches arising from the main stems unpruned
  • Only remove the side branches if misplaced, crossing or growing towards the centre of the tree. Lightly thin out if crowded
  • Remove any strongly upright shoots that developed at the top of the tree

In future years, following winter pruning of established apple and pear trees. If you are new to pruning or are not feeling very confident, you may like to try our pruning made easy guide instead.

Fruiting

  • Do not let the young tree fruit in the first year. Remove any fruit as soon as they are seen
  • In the second year, if the tree is establishing and growing well, you may let one or two fruit develop; this can be useful to check if you have the expected cultivar as mistakes can sometimes happen

Problems

There are few problems associated with pruning. However, problems you may encounter include apple canker, blossom wilt, brown rot and frost damage.

Young fruit trees can be prone to poor establishment and rabbit damage.

Advertise here

Video exclusive for RHS members: expert advice on dealing with slugs and snails

Sign into the RHS website to watch video Sign in

Sign in

Did you find the advice you needed?

RHS members can get exclusive individual advice from the RHS Gardening Advice team.

Join the RHS now

Discuss this

for the site or to share your experiences on this topic and seek advice from our community of gardeners.