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To obtain good apples every year, with harvests of consistent quantity and quality, apple trees need to be pruned effectively.

This fruit tree, in fact, in nature tends to alternate production between ‘heavy’ and light’ years. Therefore, we need to intervene to mitigate excessive fruit bearing or, conversely, stimulate it. The pruning of the apple tree, widespread in very many varieties, consists of several techniques; below we will see how and when to prune young and old apple trees, in the different seasons, in the main forms of cultivation in volume (vase, spindle, free) or in espalier (Guyot type, columnar axis) and with which tools.


The best time to prune apple trees

When to prune apple trees? The most suitable period is winter. This tree does not suffer at low temperatures; in fact, it needs the cold for its vegetative rest, and, therefore, does not even fear brown (or dry) pruning cuts too much. Furthermore, during the cold months, the plant has no leaves and this makes it easier to identify the branches with the best buds to preserve and those to remove.

Consequently, the winter pruning window is wide and runs from December to the end of February. The choice of the moment to enter the rows will depend solely on the farmer and the weather conditions. If, however, the orchard is not too large, if you can use high-performance agricultural tools, such as those manufactured by Campagnola, or if you can employ a sufficient number of operators to be able to complete the pruning in a short time, then it is preferable to intervene only in late February, to try and delay the vegetative awakening as much as possible. It is true, in fact, that the apple tree resists the cold, but it is also true that it suffers a lot from late spring frosts, especially after the flowers open.


Fewer, but bigger and tastier apples: the importance of thinning

If the aim of winter pruning (see also the other specific study on brown pruning) is mainly to eliminate suckers and side shoots, damaged and/or diseased branches, and establish the training method, summer green pruning is used to thin out the vegetation in excess stimulated by the previous pruning (so it is a good rule not to cut too much), thus exposing the foliage to better light and reducing or eliminating the risk of self-shading.

Above all, small fruits are thinned to counteract the tendency towards alternation in the production of apples. We intervene immediately after fruit setting, when the fruits are still 10-15 mm in diameter, so as to have one apple per flowerhead (corymb).

Using good sharp shears – such as the S2 (Double-cut hand shear), STAR30 (pneumatic shear), SPEEDY or SL23 (electric shear with plug-in battery) models produced by Campagnola – we remove small fruits, leaving a couple per corymb. We must, however, make sure to leave a good part of the peduncle intact, to avoid the remaining fruit falling due to the wound inflicted by the cut.

Alongside thinning, we can guarantee the best quality apples – large in size and tasty – by fostering the balanced production of fruit on fruit spurs (very small fruit-bearing branches), on crown shoots (small branches), and on mixed branches (medium vigour) and renewing these fruit-bearing branches through brown and green pruning.

We should not underestimate the foliar aspect: the flowerhead leaves must be thinned at the same time as the fruit, but pruning must still ensure that each fruit has a good number of leaves in order to accumulate the sugar reserves it needs.


What are the main pruning criteria to respect?

When you enter the orchard (see also an in-depth study on pruning fruit trees), it helps to have in mind a small apple tree pruning scheme with the main criteria applying to all varieties – of which there are truly very many, thanks to crosses and numerous rootstocks, given that this plant is one of the most cultivated in the world, as it adapts to different climate and soil conditions, even if it prefers hilly-mountain environments.

The temperature variations between night and day, in fact, make apples more colourful and crunchy: this is also one of the reasons we like this fruit, available throughout the year, so much.

– Apple trees are characterised by a strong apical dominance; therefore, each branch must end with a single top, the highest, and the tops competing with the dominant bud must be removed.

– The height of the plant and/or the length of the branches is kept under control through renewal pruning, obviously respecting the bark collar.

Shortening must be avoided, since the plant reacts with a vegetative regrowth; furthermore, in pome fruits, such as the apple tree, the branches end with a single (mixed) apical fruit bud.

– When pruning, the cuts must always be at an angle, to avoid the stagnation of rainwater or humidity, but in the case of the apple tree the cuts must also be at an angle towards and above a bud, leaving a small wood edge.

– The branches must have a triangular section (except for particular training forms) which narrows towards the tips.

– When pruning apple trees, techniques such as bending or curvature (with ligatures), inclination or spreading (with special ligatures or spreaders) must also be adopted.

– After pruning a certain number of trees, it is advisable to sharpen the blades and chains, so that the cuts are always neat and precise.

– It is recommended to always disinfect pruning tools between one tree and the next, especially after removing a diseased branch, even on the same plant, before making the next cut with the same blade or chain.

– In the presence of trees affected by diseases or attacked by parasites, it is always advisable to dispose of the branches produced by pruning away from the orchard or to burn them, to reduce the risk of further infestations.


Some of the forms of apple tree cultivation

From the moment the young apple tree seedlings are planted, it takes 3 or 4 years before the plant takes on the definitive training form desired by the farmer through various pruning interventions.

The choice of the training method depends on several factors: the variety of the apple tree, the type of rootstock, the quality of the soil in which the transplant is carried out, and the type of production desired (family, intensive, or very intensive).

Among the training forms in volume we find the ‘free’ one with long pruning (taille longue), low vase or spindle. The forms of espalier training include the Guyot type and the type with a columnar axis.


Long pruning (taille longue) of the apple tree

Apple trees are considered the most suitable plant for long pruning. This technique involves letting the plant grow free, with few interventions to limit excessive fruiting and avoid alternating production.

The fruits are thinned out, the innermost and less productive fruit spurs are removed, the renewals close to the tops are removed from the branches, and the vegetation inside the tree is thinned out for a better distribution of light.

There are no shortenings and return cuts. The growth of the branches is checked by the terminal bud (which is also fruit-bearing) and by the fruiting itself: the weight of the fruits causes long branches to bend downwards, favouring the flower differentiation of the dorsal buds.


Pruning low vase form apple trees

The traditional shape of the apple tree is the low vase, which is more manageable from the ground and goes into production earlier than the tall vase form. The stem remains about 50 cm from the ground, with 3 or 4 main branches with various sub-branches extending out from it. The crown looks balanced and is beautiful to look at.

The low vase shape is out of use in intensive systems, as it is not very well-suited to mechanisation. It is more suitable, however, for orchards with planting layouts at least 5×4 m wide, for small orchards and in hilly areas, or for private gardens.


Pruning  spindle apple trees

The spindle is one of the most used forms in productive apple growing, even in very intensive systems, despite being a (small) form of cultivation in volume. It ensures good exposure to light and facilitates harvesting.

It has a central axis up to 2.5-3 m high with branches, spurs and crown shoots of greater size and length at the bottom and shorter at the top. Both the central axis and the stage of the 3-4 lateral branches, inserted in a spiral 40-80 cm from the ground, must take on a conical shape. The branches will have an ascending top limited by the return cut., Right after the first year of growth, the top of the stripling will be deviated precisely with a return cut for one year in one direction and the following year in the opposite direction.

In the spindle training system, the pronounced density in the plant is made possible using a ‘dwarfing‘ rootstock. The disadvantage is that the root system remains quite contained, so it will be necessary to continue watering the plants during full production.


Pruning espalier apple trees

Espalier training is also adopted in the cultivation of apple trees, to allow for greater mechanisation, and requires more careful and rigorous pruning.

In particular, growers adopt a technique similar to the ‘double upside down’ Guyot used in vine cultivation. About half a metre from the ground, cut the central stripling and bend two branches so that they grow horizontally in  opposite directions.

In this form of farming, it is necessary to create a scaffold with poles and wires, which acts as a brace for the two lateral branches through the ligatures. On each branch, 2-3 mixed branches will grow vertically with crown shoots and fruit spurs which will produce fruit together with the tops of the branches themselves, left free to develop upwards in the terminal part to regain apical dominance.

Another form of – perfectly vertical and super intensive due to strong mechanisation – espalier training includes a columnar axis. It can be considered an evolution of flat fan-trained cultivation, also called palmette-trained cultivation, used for other plants.


Pruning apple trees for production

The way apple trees are pruned for production mainly depends on the variety that the plant belongs to. The substantial difference is on which branches (and in which year) the apples are predominantly produced. There are four varietal groups, which require different pruning cuts.

The Renetta, for example, is the most representative of the Type II varieties, which bear fruit mainly on branches of many years of age and require ‘long’ pruning. Another very widespread and well-known apple, the Golden Delicious, belongs to Type III, which includes varieties that bear fruit on fruit spurs, crown shoots, and mixed branches and easily adapt to various forms of pruning.

Another classification is based on the tendency of the varieties to produce on spurs with a subdivision into a standard group (Golden Delicious, Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith), a semi-spur group (Braeburn, Early Red One, Goldrush and Gold Chief ), and a spur group (Red Chief).


Here’s a fun fact: the apple is not the real fruit!

From a botanical point of view, the actual apple is a ‘false fruit’. In fact, we are used to considering the pulp between the peel and the core the fruit of the apple tree. Instead, the swelling of the floral ‘receptacle‘ – the name of the pulpy part we eat – is not a fruit: the real one fruit is the core, which holds the seeds.


Pruning ornamental flower apple trees

The flower apple tree (Malus Red Sentinel) is a hybrid of New Zealand origin. It is a full-fledged apple tree: it produces edible fruits, but in miniature. Therefore, it is grown only for ornamental purposes. It can also be planted in a pot on the terrace as, like the ‘large’ apple tree, it resists the winter cold.

In spring it has abundant flowering with pink buds which open into white flowers. In summer, small fruits with a diameter of about 2.5 cm will form in clusters, which will then change from an initial orange colour to bright red when ripe in autumn.

It is not necessary to prune flower apple trees, apart from removing any dry or damaged branches in winter. They can be left free to grow.

The most suitable Campagnola tools for apple tree pruning

Once the farming phase has been completed, after the third year of age, apple trees have developed fully. Therefore, in production or reform pruning (if it is necessary to rejuvenate the plants, or make them resume their training form), in addition to shears tools capable of also cutting branches of a larger diameter are needed.

Manual tools, such as the S30 fixed-bladed hand saw  or the S21 curved anvil-cut hand lopper, are particularly useful.

The handy T-CAT M and T-FOX electric chain pruners (with plug-in battery) allow the cutting of branches of 8 and 10 cm in diameter respectively.

Older trees have thicker and taller branches; therefore, a tool such as the T-REX electric chain pruner mounted on a telescopic extension pole (160-240 or 250-300 cm) is needed to carry out pruning in total safety up to 21 cm in diameter while the operator keeps his or her feet firmly on the ground. The STARK L electric shear with plug-in battery or the VICTORY pneumatic shear can also be mounted on a telescopic extension pole.

Among the pneumatic tools, the LASER chain pruner with 8” carving bar and the LINX chain pruner with the same bar for extension pole make for more intense and prolonged work sessions and are valid substitutes for branch chainsaws up to 20 cm in diameter, as they do not transmit vibrations and do not emit exhaust gases. Lastly, we highlight the STAR 50 pneumatic lopper and the F/6 U version with hooked blade, which hooks the branch to be cut.

For further information on Campagnola tools, you can consult the online catalogue, use the contact section of this site, or contact the official network of local distributors, where you can view and purchase our tools, accessories, and spare parts.

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