Pruning help - Apples

Greetings everyone. I planted a small orchard 10+ years ago. I’ve gotten pretty good at pruning my Asian pears, peaches, and some of my apples. However… I have two apples that for the life of me, I just don’t seem to get them pruned and producing well.

Both trees on unknown rootstock and planted about 2008, one red delicious and one golden. I asked when purchasing but the nursery had no idea what rootstock they were on. (They really didn’t even know what rootstock was). I am guessing these are standard or close, as they grow and grow and grow. The trunks are like elephant trunks! Wide thick strong. I’ve been cutting the tops off trying to keep them sprayable. I’ve cut branches I think need to go, Done some summer pruning but these things just develop a huge tangle of branches. Three or four years ago I gave em a monstrous trimming and the result was less than stellar. They both started growing even more annoying small water sprouts/laterals, whatever you want to call them. Almost no fruit since… HELP!!! Images attached.


You are correct in that you likely have a higher horsepower root stock under that tree. First and foremost, do not fertilize it if you have been. Second, by topping that tree you took away the apical dominance by the central leader … now a 100 shoots are looking to become the dominant leader. On a positive you have a nice looking first scaffold, now you want to begin establishing scaffolds 2 and 3. Personally other than trying to set the permanent top of the tree I wouldnt dormant prune it at all this winter. As winter starts to break and before bud push, start getting some of those heavier limbs tied down to a flatter angle, around 30 degrees or so to start building scaffolds 2 and 3. If you get too close to horizontal your going to encourage a lot of sucker growth. Vertical growth doesnt produce much fruit. Summer prune early this summer after the tree has expended some energy pushing new leaves, but before it can utilize them much in building next winters winters expendable reserves. Tying down new growth is your better approach than trying to remove it. Removing all the suckers you have now becomes a vicious yearly cycle that isnt going to produce a productive fruit tree. Avoid the “monstrous” prunings they will never get you what you want with this tree.


There is nothing wrong with topping the tree. The issue is about reducing big wood but leaving as much potentially fruitful small wood as possible. Once smaller wood becomes fruitful (and it will) it will reduce the vegetative vigor of the trees. Worry about containing spread once they become fruitful.

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I agree with the others. I planted a Cortland and a Tompkins King back 30 years ago and though that I was savy enough to keep them at reasonable picking heights of less than 10’. But soon found that both trees had very rigorous rootstock, and so each year I get numerous water shoots and always have to prune them off to prevent overcrowding of canopy. I offer the following from my experience:

  1. My semi dwarf Chehalis requires very little pruning each year and produces much more fruit than we can consume.
  2. You could Top Work your trees at about 1/3 of the major limbs per year, to reduce altitude picking and pruning. It’s pretty hard to kill and apple tree, don’t be afraid to Top work them!
  3. After 29 years I decided last year that fighting these two trees was no fun, so I ordered 5ea G890 rootstocks, and grafted them last spring with Cortland and Tompkins King scions. So starting this spring I will dramatically cut back my Cortland and King and top work them at a very low height. Once my dwarfs begin production, I may totally remove the larger trees as no longer needed. You can easily accommodate three semi dwarfs on the same ground as a full sized apple tree with about 1/3 the effort and get more fruit much easier.
  4. Here in Wa we are exposed to the apple maggot fly, so I absolutely have to have growing heights limited to assure I can spray them adequately to get edible fruit.
    Good luck

Well @DennisD, that depends

It is useful advice to encourage folks to prune heavily if a tree is vigorous and it serves the purpose of the grower. Years ago I did my first grafting on an apple tree I intended to cut down but left a branchless trunk intending to come back and finish the job. Instead, I let it send out riotous suckers and the following year grated some of them to another variety. You will never see grafts turn into heavy bearing scaffolds more quickly using any other method.

In the old days, when all apple trees in commercial orchards in this country were on seedling rootstocks, growers sometimes used a method called dehorning of huge trees that had become impossibly tall. They would lower a 30’ tall apple tree to 10’ or so by ruthlessly topping the trees to that height. Trees would then be retrained to a lower height and provide another generation of productivity.

It is hard to kill a healthy apple tree by over-pruning it. I’ve never accomplished the feat.