Apple and pear trees are dormant in winter so now is the time to prune them.  It is a cold and satisfying task – wrap up warm – for which you need sharp secateurs, a pruning saw and probably a step ladder.

A word of warning: in winter, trained fruit trees (such as cordons and espaliers) need only light pruning to remove diseased, damaged or criss-crossing stems and encourage their framework because their main pruning is done in summer to encourage fruiting ‘spurs’. Don't prune plum or other stoned fruit trees until April, if at all.

Why prune fruit trees in winter?

To let more light and air into the tree. This will help ripen the fruits and prevent disease. Reducing the numbers of branches will also mean fewer and larger fruits. And keeping standard trees in check means you are more likely to be able to reach and pick the fruit and not be faced with masses of fallen apples.

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Prune now for a great apple crop, like this one in the walled garden
at The Weir, a National Trust property in Herefordshire.

Which tool?

  • Sharp secateurs are for shoots up to 1cm (1.2 inch) thick.
  • Loppers are for branches up to 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick.
  • Pruning saws are for anything bigger. If you are cutting away bigger branches, don’t do it in one go. Cut it about 45 cm (18 inches) way from the trunk, and then cut that last section off close to the trunk. This prevents the weight of the branch pulling and damaging the main tree and makes the task easier.

How to prune fruit trees: some basics

  • The hardest part of pruning is recognising which buds are going to grow into leaves and which are going to bear fruit. You need to know so that you don’t remove all the fruit buds….  Simply – fruit buds are fatter than leaf buds and as the winter nears an end fruit buds often feel soft and downy. You want to keep as many of the fruit buds as the tree can bear, so it’s important to know the difference.  Read this RHS advice guide and our blog last year. Still not sure? Ask your garden centre or a local apple orchard to show you what’s what.
  • When you cut off a shoot, cut back to the thicker branch it is growing from, and cut as close to the branch as you can.
  • When you shorten branches, or shoots, cut above a bud that is pointing out from the tree and sloping in the direction the bud is growing.

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    Winter prune standard fruit trees like this lovely apple, which as a start needs criss-crossing twigs and thin vertical shoots to be cut out. Sarah Buchanan.

How to prune fruit trees: step by step

  1. Cut away completely any branches and twigs that are damaged or diseased.
  2. Cut away twigs and branches that are crossing over each other or heading for the centre of the tree. On older trees, cut out congested twigs and branches to create a more open tree.
  3. Cut away thin spindly shoots growing straight up from main branches or in bunches from previous cuts.
  4. Shorten each main branch by cutting it back to about one third of its length, and to a bud that faces out away from the tree.

Find out more?

This is a brief introduction to an important garden task, and you may want to know more

  • For more advice try the latest edition (2017) of the RHS Pruning and Training guide by Christopher Brickall and David Joyce. This is a book for keen pruners and those of us who worry about getting pruning right. It offers guidance on how to prune over 800 trees, shrubs and plants. A real bonus is its step by step instructions and great photography.