Apples and pears: pruning established cordons

Usually grown as a single stem with very short fruiting side-shoots, this trained form is ideal for small gardens and containers. Cordons can be kept compact, well-shaped and productive if pruned correctly every summer – here we show you how to do it, as well as how to rejuvenate an old cordon.

Training trees as cordons means you can grow several different cultivars in a small area  ©RHS \ Tim Sandall
Training trees as cordons means you can grow several different cultivars in a small area ©RHS \ Tim Sandall

Quick facts

  • A space-saving way of growing apples and pears
  • Usually single stemmed, trained at 45° or vertically, with a permanent support
  • Prune established cordons annually in late summer to maintain their shape and promote fruiting
  • Rejuvenate and re-shape old or overgrown cordons by pruning in winter

What are cordons?

Cordons are usually trained as a single stem with short side-shoots (spurs) that carry the fruit. It’s a compact way of growing fruit, ideal if you don’t have room for a full-sized tree, if you want to grow fruit in containers, or if you want several different cultivars in a small area.
Cordons are attractive features and make productive use of bare walls or fences. Harvesting is also simple as the trees are compact, so the fruits are within reach.
There are several popular forms:
  • Oblique cordons – a single stem trained at a 45° angle
  • Vertical cordons – either a single stem or multiple stems, supported vertically. Single-stemmed forms include Minarette®, Supercolumn and naturally compact Ballerina®, while multi-stems are either U cordons (with two stems) or double-U (with four)
  • Horizontal cordons – are usually known as a stepovers. See our guide to growing stepovers for full details
 These three types of cordons are all pruned in a similar way in late summer.

When and why to prune cordons

Why cordons need annual pruning

Summer pruning is essential for a good crop, encouraging fruit buds to form on the short side-shoots (spurs).
If not pruned annually, cordons can soon lose their compact shape and revert to their natural ‘tree’ shape.
Oblique cordons are generally more easily controlled than vertical cordons, as lowering the stem to 45° reduces the dominance of the topmost shoot (known as apical dominance). However, oblique cordons can still become overgrown if not pruned annually.

When to summer prune established cordons

  • Prune annually once the lower third of new shoots has turned woody, which is in general from late -July for pears and mid- to late-August for apples.
  • Begin summer pruning in the second year after planting if you started with untrained (maiden) tree, or in the first year with a pre-trained cordon
 Newly planted young trees require specific formative pruning in their first year – see our guide to initial pruning of cordons.

How to summer prune cordons

The summer pruning method is similar for oblique and vertical cordons, including Minarette® and Supercolumn cultivars, as well as multi-stemmed cordons. It’s only the naturally compact Ballerina® apple trees (see below) that don’t require regular summer pruning.

  • Look for any new shoots over 20cm (8in) long, a secateur lenght, growing from previously pruned side-shoots or spurs. Cut these new shoots back to one leaf beyond the basal cluster (the clump of leaves at the base of the current season’s growth) – see pruning cut 1 on the diagram
  • Leave new shoots that are less than 20cm (8in) long unpruned, as they usually terminate in fruit buds. In particular, this will improve fruiting when growing a partially tip-bearing cultivar
  • Check the ties securing the main stem to the support – loosen any that have become tight and replace any that are frayed or missing  
Additionally, in May:
  • Once the main stem reaches the required length, cut back any further growth to a weaker side-shoot. Treat subsequent growth of this side-shoot in a similar way to other side-shoots, pruning it to one leaf past the previous cut – see pruning cut on the diagram
With vertical cordons, the top growth has a tendency to become too dominant, leading to a bare stem lower down. To prevent this, be sure to prune every summer. It’s very difficult to regain a balance between the upper and lower growth once it has become uneven.
See our video about summer pruning of cordons for handy tips.

Pruning Ballerina® apple trees
If you have a Ballerina® cultivar, this will have a natural columnar shape with very short side-shoots, so pruning isn’t routinely needed. However, it will be required in the following instances:
  • Occasionally Ballerina® trees produce longer side-shoots – summer prune as for traditional cordons (see above)
  • If the fruiting spurs (short side-shoots carrying the fruit) become overcrowded, thin them out in winter (see Winter pruning old cordons, below)
  • Once the tree reaches your required height, start pruning the top of the main stem annually in May, as for traditional cordons (see above). Ballerina® apple trees can potentially reach about 3m (10ft) tall after ten years 

Winter pruning of old or overgrown cordons

Over time, a cordon’s spur system (the short fruiting side-shoots) often becomes complicated and congested. When this happens, prune additionally in winter, while the tree is dormant. Thin out the spur system by removing older and unproductive sections – see pruning cut on the diagram below

If any side-shoots carrying fruiting spurs have become too long, consider gradual renovation.
  • Prune the ovelong side-shoots growing from the main stems right back to a stub, 3-5cm (1-2in) long , cutting above a well-placed dormant bud. A new shoot should then grow as a replacement.
  • Take care not to remove more than one-third of the side-shoots on a plant per year
  • Continue summer pruning in the usual way (see above)

Frequently asked questions

How can I encourage more branching from the main stem?
It depends on the age of your cordon:
  • With new trees, try ‘tipping’ in winter. This means pruning back the previous summer’s growth at the top of the main stem by up to one-third. Winter tipping should induce some of the lower buds to break in spring
  • On older cordons, a bare stem lower down is much harder to remedy. To encourage dormant buds to break, you could try a method known as notching. In early spring, remove a small crescent-shaped piece of bark just above a dormant bud on the main stem. If this doesn’t produce results, there’s little else that can be done to regain the original balanced shape  
I missed the summer pruning, what should I do?
It’s better to prune in winter than not at all, to prevent the fruiting spurs growing too long. So once the plant is dormant, prune back last year’s shoots growing directly from the main stem to 5-7.5cm (2-3in) long, cutting just above a bud. Also shorten the last year's shoots from the existing spurs to 2.5-3cmcm (1-1½in) long. Then resume annual summer pruning.
Why do I get significant re-growth after summer pruning?
There are two potential reasons:
  • You may be pruning too early, before growth slows down. Try delaying until September, when larger terminal (end) buds have formed at the shoot tips and the shoots have stopped growing
  • If pruning is followed by a spell of good growing conditions (warmth and rain), growth may re-start. Prune back any re-growth in September (or October if pruning later) to one leaf beyond your previous cut.  
My oblique cordon has reached the top wire – can I let it continue growing?
If you have space, you could consider carefully lowering the stem from 45° down to as low as 35°, to extend the stem length.
How can I shorten the overly long side-shoots on my cordon?
  • Prune them right back in winter to stubs 3–5cm (1–2in) long, cutting just above a well-placed dormant bud. But take care not to remove more than a third of the side-shoots in any one year
  • Spread this pruning evenly around the tree and over several winters
  • Follow this pruning by summer pruning annually
  • If the top growth has become very dominant, your cordon may never regain a good balance so may need replacing
How can I train a partial tip-bearers as a cordon?
Although it’s best to use spur-bearing cultivars, it is also possible to train partial tip-bearers as cordons. Some, such as ‘Discovery’ and ‘Charles Ross’, are easily maintained, but others, such as ‘Worcester Pearmain’ and 'Bramley's Seedling', can potentially be difficult to manage. The key difference when summer pruning is to leave several shorter new shoots, about a secateur’s length (20cm/8in) or less, unpruned every year. These shorter shoots are likely to have developed a fruit bud at the tip.

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.