Apples and pears: managing watershoots

Heavy pruning can cause trees to produce lots of vigorous upright shoots known as watershoots. These fruitless shoots can cause overcrowded or uneven growth and spoil the appearance of the tree. Controlling watershoots requires careful pruning over several years, so follow our step-by-step guide.

Heavy pruning stimulated growth of numerous watershoots ©RHS\Jonna Kossak

Quick facts

Suitable for: Heavily pruned apples and pears
Timing: November to February
Difficulty: Moderate
 

What are watershoots?

Watershoots (also known as epicormic growth) are distinctive-looking vertical shoots that grow strongly. They usually sprout in spring, often in large numbers, after a tree has been heavily pruned or renovated (especially when more than 25 per cent of the canopy has been removed in one go) or when a main branch has been severely lopped, leaving a bare stump.

Step-by-step guide to managing watershoots

Year 1 
 
  1. In the first winter after the watershoots appear, remove any growing directly from the trunk or lower parts of the main branches. Cut them right at the base, leaving no stub
  2. Then prune out half of the remaining upright watershoots at the base to leave evenly spaced shoots. Aim to keep the centre of the crown open
  3. Tip-prune the remaining watershoots, simply cutting off the top 10cm (4in) or so, to encourage branching
     
Year 2 
  1. In winter, remove half of the watershoots you kept in the previous year, cutting them off at the base
  2. Prune the remaining shoots just above an outward-facing side-shoot, to encourage outward growth and avoid congesting the centre of the tree
  3. You can also lightly tip-prune more vigorous shoots, cutting just above an outward-facing bud, to encourage further branching
  4. If the centre of the crown is still crowded with shoots, consider removing some of the older larger branches. If you need to remove more than one, spread this over a couple of years to avoid stimulating new watershoots
 
Year 3 
  1. In winter continue lightly trimming strongly growing shoots to outward-facing buds or side-shoots. Leave weaker shoots unpruned – they’ll produce fruiting buds
  2. Keep checking for vigorous shoots growing from the older branches and remove any that appear
  3. Fruit buds should start forming on the new shoots. Once this happens, go back to routine winter pruning or consider using the winter regulated pruning method if you want to prevent the tree getting gradually larger every year
Prune out unwated watershoots without leaving a stub   ©RHS/Joanna Kossak

Frequently asked questions

Why are lots of watershoots produced after hard pruning?
Excessive pruning stresses the tree. It will strive to restore the balance between its root system and the amount of top growth it is able to support – the so-called root-to-shoot ratio. After hard pruning, the excess energy of the roots will ‘wake up’ dormant buds in mature wood, resulting in watershoot growth.
 
Should I prune back all the watershoots?
No. Hard pruning will only result in further strong re-growth, achieving very little. They have to be controlled in stages over several years.
 
I didn’t prune severely, so why am I still getting watershoots?

Any hard pruning can stimulate some watershoots. If you only have a few, you can simply remove them close to the point of origin. Alternatively, if they’re in areas of sparse growth, such as the lower parts of older branches, you could leave several to form new fruiting branches.
 
My tree produces watershoots every spring – how can I stop this?
If it continues to produce new watershoots from its older branches, consider removing them in late summer when growth slows down. This may help to curb the number of new watershoots produced in spring.
 

Join the RHS

Become an RHS Member today and save 25% on your first year

Join now

Gardeners' calendar

Find out what to do this month with our gardeners' calendar

Advice from the RHS

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.