Knowing how to prune an apple tree that is trained brings real advantages and there are just a few key steps to understand to help ensure you get tasty fruit year-after-year. I have been fortunate enough to look after a couple of large apple tree collections. One was an old orchard that was maintained and harvested for an annual apple festival celebrating all things apples. The other was in a walled garden that was full of espalier fruit trees. There were espalier apples on arches through the garden, and also the walls, that needed looking after, pruning and harvesting. It was sometimes hard, but always very enjoyable, work looking after those collections of fabulous apple trees.

Why do you need to prune espalier apple trees?

There are several benefits to learning when to prune an apple tree and the correct methods for doing it, especially when it comes to espalier trees. First, it will help keep the shape. It also ensures good light and air circulation, which will help keep the tree healthy and encourage fruit ripening. Pruning espalier apple trees will result in more fruit as most apples fruit on short and stubby spurs that grow along the main branches. The objective of the pruning is to encourage the production of these fruiting spurs - which will give more apples.  Lucy Chamberlain, fruit and veg expert for Amateur Gardening, claims apples are ‘ideal for espaliers’ due to how and where they produce their fruiting buds and, once the main shape of the espalier is achieved, pruning is simple the following years. ‘Initially the objective is to build up these “framework” stems, then maintenance consists of thinning the spurs annually,’ she explains. ‘By cutting back this year’s growth, you’ll encourage fruiting spurs to form, let more light reach the ripening crop and improve air flow (which will decrease the build up of pests and diseases). All that with just a few snips of your pruning shears!’

What tools do you need for espalier apple tree pruning?

Importantly, make sure to have clean garden tools and ensure tools are sharp to guarantee clean cuts that will heal over quicker and reduce the risk of infection getting into the tree. It is also a good idea to sterilize pruning tools before and after using, to minimize the risk of contamination from pathogens or bacteria that could be transferred to or from another plant.

When to prune espalier apple trees

Getting the time of year right for pruning is just as important as knowing when to plant your apple tree in the first place.  Established espalier apple trees are routinely pruned twice a year. The best time for apple tree pruning is in winter, when the tree is dormant, and espaliers also need a second prune in summer. It is a sound idea to get a good balance between the two. The winter prune can be used for more major renovation work and to deal with any congested branches, and the summer prune aids with encouraging the development of fruiting spurs and to ripen the fruit.  Steve and Val Bradley, experts from Amateur Gardening, advise that to guarantee a good yield of fruit in a kitchen garden you need to accept that pruning is ‘not just a winter task’ as it is with normal fruit trees. ‘Once you prune year-round, you begin to train your fruit trees rather than just shape them. Research has found that when the current season’s apple shoots have 23 leaves, changes take place on a cellular level and the base of the shoot starts to form flowering/fruit buds for the following year,’ they add. ‘By pruning in the right way, at the right time, and therefore working with the plant’s growth patterns, it is possible to encourage the development of fruit bearing spurs and reduce the amount of excessive shoot extension.  ‘The basis of this training is to work with the tree to prune and shape it so that it responds in the desired way to give you the result you are aiming at.’

Pruning young espalier apple trees

Espaliers traditionally start as a single-stemmed young tree that is cut back to around 1ft from the ground. Once the top buds grow, one is trained vertically and two others selected to be trained out as the horizontals. After being tied in during the winter, the central stem is cut back and left to put out shoots to form the next layer.  This process is repeated annually until the final tier of growth has been achieved. Any vertical shoots during this time on the horizontal branches should be cut back to 5 inches, and these will become fruiting spurs. By trimming back the horizontal shoots to three buds, that will also create more spurs to carry fruit.

Winter pruning of espalier apple trees

Annual winter pruning when an established espalier apple tree is dormant offers the opportunity to remove dead, diseased, and damaged wood. The pruning should also be done to keep the tree in shape.  The winter pruning promotes growth and offers a good chance to deal with any overcrowding on the tree. Congested fruiting spurs can be thinned, ideally they should be around three inches apart.  Any major renovation pruning should also commence in the winter, however, as Robert Silver from ProGardeningBlog (opens in new tab) warns, you should avoid over-pruning. He advises: ‘It’s important not to remove too much of the tree at once, as this can stress the tree and reduce its fruit production. Remove no more than 25 per cent of the canopy each year.’

Summer pruning of espalier apple trees

When pruning established espalier apple trees in the summer, there are two key elements you are looking at. This is with the intention of restricting growth, as well as letting more light and air in to ripen the existing fruits that are growing. If you’re also pruning pears trees that are grown as espaliers, you can take a similar approach in summer too. Do make sure that your apple tree is one that is a spur-bearer, as any fruits that are tip-bearers should not be pruned in the summer. 

Side shoots growing from the main horizontal arms of the tree are cut back to three to four leaves – around 2-4 inches. Shoots growing from side shoots that have been previously pruned are cut back to one leaf.

During summer pruning, continue to identify and remove any dead, diseased, or damaged branches. Monitor the fruit too for any sign of pest damage or diseases and make sure to remove any affected fruit, so they do not impair others around them.  Take care when summer pruning not to damage or knock any apples growing on the tree as you do not want your fall harvest to be reduced. However, any apples knocked off can be picked up and used. Rather than storing the apples you can use them in the same way as windfall apples, for recipes such as jams, jellies, and chutneys.