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An Illustrated Guide for Pruning An Overgrown Apple Tree

Updated on December 3, 2010
Overgrown Apple Tree
Overgrown Apple Tree

pruning an overgrown apple tree

Without careful attention to pruning and other culturlal practices, an apple tree can become to tall, to wide, to dense in the middle and it looks unmanageable. However, it is not as difficult to rejuvinate as it looks.


Pruning equipment

Pruning Equipment
Pruning Equipment

Pole Pruner

pruning saw

folded pruning saw
folded pruning saw

Pruning Equipment

It will require laying out a little cash to get the needed equipment as indicated in the illustrations. I prefer the scissors pruners over the the anvil style, but either one works fine. They are for pruning small twigs, branches, and suckers. The loppers are for cutting larger branches and branches you can't reach with hand pruners. A pole pruner telescopes to reach parts of the tree you can't reach with the loppers. It has both a pruning tool and a pruning saw on the end. A pruning saw is used to cut large limbs that are dead or need to be removed. Please do not try to use a regular saw. A pruning saw has teeth set for pruning trees.


Illustration of a thinning cut

Thinning Cut

Before starting on the tree you need to know about the different types of cuts and what they do to a tree. A thinning cut removes the entire branch back to a side branch without leaveing a stub as the illustration  shows. This cut is also used to remove large limbs with the pruning saw. There are several benefits of a thinning cut, as follows:

  • It can be used to reduce the height and width of a tree.
  • It does not invigorate the tree.
  • It can be used to thin out branches when there is to much density.
  • It can be used to clear out a congested area in the middle of the tree.
  • It helps to let sunlilght into the middle of the tree which is necessary to produce and ripen fruit.

Illustration of a heading cut

Illustration of a heading cut
Illustration of a heading cut

thinning and heading cuts compared

thinning and heading cuts compared
thinning and heading cuts compared

A Heading Cut

A heading cut shortens the length of a limb by cutting off some of the end. It has both its pros and cons. They are:

  • It can be used to control the height and width of a tree by cutting off the end of limbs that are too long.
  • Cutting of the end of weak limbs will make them stronger and stiffer.
  • If you need more leaf service and flower buds on a limb, a heading cut will produce additional growth of 6 - 8 inches behind the cut. Note the growth on the illustration at the top right.
  • Don't use a heading cut when you want to thin out dense growth. It will create additional density where it is not wanted. (See illustration)

root sucker

root suckers
root suckers

appearance after pruning

This tree has been trimmed too much in my opinion.
This tree has been trimmed too much in my opinion.

apple tree before and after pruning

apple tree before and after pruning
apple tree before and after pruning

A Suggested Method for Pruning

  1. Look at the tree trunk.
  2. Remove any root suckers. If not removed when small, root suckers can grow up right through the middle of the tree crowding out fruit bearing growth.
  3. Remove any growth on the tree that is lower than the lowest scaffold limb. Anything that is less than 30" above ground should be removed.
  4. Remove limbs that will be on the ground when the tree is bearing fruit.
  5. Use thinning cuts in the middle of the tree to remove all upright limbs and limbs growing across the middle. You may need to remove some large limbs that have grown into the center of the tree. If so, you will need to saw them off by cutting as close to the adjacent limb as possible without leaving a stub.
  6. If needed, reduce the height and width of the tree with a thinning cut to a shorter limb. (See Illustration)
  7. Try to avoid using heading cuts when clearing out the middle of a tree or when reducing its height and width.
  8. Stand back to critique the tree. If needed, make other cuts.
  9. Remember this: you can remove a limb but you can't put one back on. If you want apples, you must have limbs. (See Illustration of before and after pruning)


When to Prune

Pruning can be done anytime after the tree has defoliated and before growth starts in the spring. Pruning can be done in fall before extreme cold temperatures and in the spring after extreme temperatures are past. In some areas pruning can be done all winter long if one is careful not to prune just ahead of brief cold snaps. The best time is in the spring after the winter temperatures have ceased and before the growth of any foliage.


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