The Benefits of Pruning Apple and Pear Trees in Summer

, written by gb flag

Apple and pear harvests can be improved with summer pruning

Bees buzz lazily. Leaves rustle in the breeze. Somewhere amongst them are apples (or pears) forming on the bough. Gosh, you think, wouldn't it be great if that tree put more energy into producing fruit, instead of giving out all those leaves? Well, with a bit of help, it will.

Summer pruning has always been carried out on trained apples and pears—those in the form of cordons or espaliers and all the other clever shapes that can be created from their branches. Summer pruning is less common on untrained trees, but as garden apples and pears are now almost always grown on dwarfing stock (tall, standard trees are not pruned in summer), it's not only possible, but they'll be much easier to control and you'll gain a deeper understanding of how your trees work.

Two caveats. First, you may have a tip-bearing tree, which means its fruit forms at the tips of branches instead of on short "spurs" along the branches, and these need pruning with more caution. Here, I'm writing about spur-bearing trees, which are far more common, especially among more modern varieties.

Second, if your tree seems to be a bit of a weakling, put the secateurs away. When you're cutting away foliage you're reducing the tree's food factory, and this will contribute to its weakness. Chances are, though, that you have a mature spur-bearer that positively bristles with foliage. This is your moment.

The effect of summer pruning

Where last year's pruning resulted in fruit formation this year.
Where last year's pruning resulted in fruit formation this year.

The two reasons for summer pruning are to improve the harvest next year and to improve this year's crop. Go and have a good look at your tree before you wield the secateurs. The shoots that have grown this year will be fairly soft for most of their length; they'll also be leafy and vigorous and probably overshadowing the fruit that's there.

That fruit is going to mature better without the shade. Allowing more air and sunshine to reach the fruit will increase size and sweetness, improve its colour, allow for easier picking and reduce the chance of pests and disease taking hold (partly because you can see any problems sooner, partly because air and light are healthier than a damper, darker microclimate created by shade and stiller air).

However, magically, removing those shoots should also result in a larger harvest next year. This is because, while the tree produces fruiting spurs naturally, summer pruning persuades it to produce even more. For various reasons, removing most of a shoot of this year's growth encourages the buds which are left behind to become fruit buds instead of leaf buds. It doesn't always happen, so if some of the shoots you prune merely grow a leafy extension again, you don't have to assume that you did something wrong.

How to summer prune apple and pear trees

Summer pruning mainly takes place in mid summer (July and August in the northern hemisphere), but it's a good idea to go out early and acquaint yourself with what's going on, so you know what you'll be lopping off next month. If your tree is very advanced you could start straight away.

Look at this year's growth. While it's still growing, the shoot will terminate in a growing point carrying a small, lighter green leaf. You need to wait until the growing point is set. Although it doesn't sound it, this really won't be difficult to spot because, instead of that small, light-coloured leaf, the shoot will carry all adult leaves.

At the same time, the wood at the bottom of the shoot, where it joins the trunk or branch, will have become stiff and woody (that's "lignified" for those who like scientific terminology). This usually happens at any length over 9 inches (23 cm). Pruning wood that hasn't hardened will just result in new leafy shoots.

Any shoots under 9 inches (23 cm) long can be ignored. This is because this shorter growth is likely to carry fruit buds naturally.

Terminal bud on this year's shoot still growing.
Terminal bud on this year's shoot still growing.

Shoots are pruned back to a stub around 3 inches in length. It'll be carrying 2 to 3 buds, and you should make the cut just above a bud or leaf. It is possible to prune harder by cutting back to a very short stub around an eighth of an inch (3mm) long, but this takes enormous courage when you first start out and many people never prune that hard.

What you should cut right back to the branch are the water shoots, which tend to form after a hard winter prune. These are very vigorous, grow straight up into the air from the main branches, and draw lots of energy from the tree. Only leave a water shoot if you want it to become a permanent branch to replace one that's damaged or to improve the shape of the tree.

In an ideal world, where we all prune perfectly and trees behave as they should, this year's shoots will arise from the main trunk or branches. This not being an ideal world, you'll find that new shoots have arisen from shoots that last year either weren't pruned at all or, if they were, produced more leafy growth instead of turning themselves into a fruiting spur. In this case, prune back to one bud just above the start of this year's growth.

Take your time

That really is all there is to it. As not all terminal buds set at once, it's generally recommended that you carry it out when around three-quarters of the buds are set. However, I suspect that this advice is mainly aimed at people who have whole orchards to attend. For the home gardener, the lovely thing is that this is a gardening job that doesn't have to be done all at once. Instead, you can take your time and attend to the shoots as they mature.

There's nothing more pleasant on a summer evening than taking a cup of tea or glass of wine out with the secateurs and finding a few more shoots that are ready for summer pruning.

By Helen Gazeley

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Comments

 
"I think I overpruned my pear trees two years ago. They were getting far too massive so we took loads of branches off. Last year lots of new stems grew but no fruit. I thought that would be ok and it was just getting its strength back and that this year it would produce lots. I was wrong! I only have about 3 fruit on one tree and none on the other. The trees themselves look really healthy with loads of lovely leaves. Will they produce fruit again or have I permanently damaged them?"
Sherri on Sunday 16 June 2013
"Hi, Sherri. I suspect that you pruned in winter. Winter pruning is aimed at promoting growth, and heavy pruning stimulates heavy growth, hence all those new branches. If you do need to do a lot of pruning, it's best to do it in stages over several years in order to try to avoid a lot of new growth. I also suspect that a large number of the new stems are water shoots, growing straight up, all leaf and no side shoots? You haven't permanently damaged the trees, but fruit is currently the last thing on their mind. Summer prune where possible this year to try to stimulate fruit buds for next. I'd be inclined to remove some of the water shoots completely this summer as they're possibly crowding the tree, then cut back others this winter to half this year's growth to encourage side shoots. Good luck!"
Helen on Monday 1 July 2013
"I have just inherited a pear tree on an allotment. I have cleared some bush like vegetation from the base and have been left with a very tall, spindly and leaning specimen. There are quite a few small dead looking branches and black spotting on the leaves. It has a few fruits developing. I would like to try to save this tree and I do understand that I will have to prune it over several years in order to get it back into good shape.I wondered if it would be ok to start pruning out the dead wood now rather than waiting until winter? ."
Karen on Monday 15 July 2013
"Yes, Karen, it should be find to take out dead wood now. "
Helen on Monday 15 July 2013
"I have two pear trees , one is a Williams 4 years old the other is a invincible 2years old. both have so much fruit that the branches are hanging like a weeping willow, and as soon as a large bird (crow or dove) lands on it staps and I have to cut it back, have I too much fruit, or can I toughen the branches in somehow, can you advise me. John Hawley "
John Hawley norfolk. on Monday 12 August 2013
"John, you definitely have too much fruit. You'll probably find that next year the trees will produce very little. You do need to take off some of the fruit - thin to one or two pears per cluster. It sounds as if the branches are very near to breaking under their own weight anyway, and you don't want that. "
Helen on Wednesday 14 August 2013
"We have a pear tree that we have never pruned. It bore a lot of fruit 2 years ago but last year didn't bear any fruit at all. This year there are a medium amount of pears. We need to shape it as it is growing up really tall but not out. How do I go about this? When would be the best time to cut it back? many thanks"
Kerry Flanagan on Wednesday 14 August 2013
"Thank you for your advice, I will do that JOHN"
John Hawley on Wednesday 14 August 2013
"Hi I have a mature pear tree I'd estimate at around 40 to 50 years old. When is the best time to give it a good prune? It still produces quite good fruit. Charlotte"
Charlotte Jones on Monday 19 August 2013
"Kerry, pruning to shape a tree takes place in winter, when you'll probably need to take out some of the upward growing branches and cut back leaders (this year's growth on the end of branches) by a third to a half. Charlotte - I'd be very wary of giving it "a good prune". See the answer to Sherri above about over-pruning. If it needs a lot of attention, then winter prune in stages over several years to try to prevent a lot of water shoots developing. If it's the shape and height you want it to be, then you can go with summer pruning as described above. "
Helen Gazeley on Monday 19 August 2013
"We have just inherited an apple orchard in Massachusetts!! Some of the trees are over 100 years old and look to be in pretty bad shape, we would like to leave them for aesthetic reasons as they remind us of a haunted forest. Most of the fruit producing trees are so thick you cant see through them and any fruit they produce is very deformed...altho quite tasty. The leaves on most of the trees are crumbly like someone tried to set the tree on fire (not really but that is best way to describe it). So my questions are.... first, will leaving our "haunted trees" harm the ones we want to save? and also, since we cannot be here in winter (we live in florida..plan to return in May for the summer) we would like to try to start thinning out the trees now...is that ok? Also, we dont have any watering system....how much water do well established trees need? We have to count on rain."
carolyn on Wednesday 21 August 2013
"Hey hello, we just moved onto our home and it has a massive pear tree out front, there are looks like millions to me lol, little tiny pear buds there are so many on the branches they are leaning, how do we take care of this so er can have some nice pears next yr, my husband wants to trim but not sure how, or when we live in alberta Canada and we have harsh winters so should we do it late fall just before the snow or right about now and how short do we cut the tree it is taller then the house, any type of information would be great . thank-you "
Nita Pringle on Saturday 31 August 2013
"Carolyn, this is quite a project you've taken on. There's a chance that the "haunted trees" carry pests and diseases that will be passed on to the trees that you renovate. However, I think the best thing would be to bring in an experienced arboriculturalist as it would be a shame to destroy 100-year old trees and you may find that there are some interesting, possibly rare, cultivars among them. Look up your nearest nursery that grows apple trees and see if they can recommend someone. Nita, not quite sure what you mean by tiny pear buds that make the tree lean. If it's taller than the house, that is quite a size. Cutting it short is not a good idea as it must be a standard-size tree. Is it causing problems? If not, I'd leave it for a year to see what sort of harvest you get. Or perhaps you could ask the neighbours, or the previous residents what sort of harvest the tree gives, as it may not need much attention. If it is causing problems, the advice of an experienced fruit-tree surgeon would be the best way to go."
Helen Gazeley on Tuesday 3 September 2013
"i bought two pear trees this year one died what seemed like right away the other look very healthy green rubbery stems the other just turned black and looks dry and dead the one that looks healthy has no buds or leaves i planted a peach tree near it 12 feet away and it did the same thing looks healthy they were both planted in early may the peach tree jusy got leaves this week and the pear tree has no leaves i water once a week they were potted when i bought them can any one offer advice is it dormant for some reason i live in northern PA"
john on Sunday 6 July 2014
"I pruned my apple tree and peach tree I think it killed them is that possible"
Tammy treadway on Saturday 24 January 2015
"Can u show me pics ov a apple tree with Budds on that gonna grow into apples please"
Diane Laverick on Friday 8 May 2015
"Brilliant advice. I was exactly looking for these solutions. Thanks a lot."
Krish Bhattacharjee on Sunday 10 May 2015
"Hi Diane. The best way to identify future apples is via the blossom. The flowers that are successfully pollinated will go on to produce apples. The area immediately behind the petals will start to swell - the first sign that a juicy apple is on its way!"
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 12 May 2015
"One branch of my pear tree is so heavily laden with fruit and new growth that it is nearly touching the ground. Will I kill or harm the tree if I simply cut off the entire branch? Thank you."
M. Dunson on Monday 1 June 2015
"Hi M.Dunson. I wouldn't cut off the entire branch. The fruits should naturally thin themselves in what's called the 'June drop', where excess fruitlets are shed, leaving those remaining to grow on. If the June drop hasn't shed enough fruits, then you can thin with a pair of scissors until you are happy there aren't too many fruits. If you're really concerned about the weight of the fruits on the branch, thin them now, to relieve the weight. But I wouldn't cut off the branch, particularly at this time of year when the tree is in full growth."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 8 June 2015
"My 1st yr. of growing a peach treeno eaches yet but, the tree is to big already,i want to thin it out,top it off,can i? "
chelle on Friday 26 June 2015
"I finally have control of fire blight but now I'm fighting cedar apple rust. Do you have any tips for prevention rather than just reacting? Also, is deformed fruit a sign of disease or could it be poor pollination?"
Wayne Stevens on Monday 29 June 2015
"Hi Chelle. Peaches are pruned in summer, but usually after harvesting their fruits. The older branches can be pruned out to keep the branch work open. Also remove any dead, diseased or damaged wood at this time. I would prune in the second half of summer, thinning out branches if necessary - but only a few at a time. They are pruned in the same way as acid cherries. "
Ben Vanheems on Monday 29 June 2015
"Hi Wayne. The best way to prevent the disease is to plant resistant varieties such as 'Redfree', 'Liberty', 'William's Pride' and 'Freedom'. The Missouri Botanical Garden describes symptoms on apple trees as follows: 'Circular, yellow spots (lesions) appear on the upper surfaces of the leaves shortly after bloom. In late summer, brownish clusters of threads or cylindrical tubes (aecia) appear beneath the yellow leaf spots or on fruits and twigs. The spores associated with the threads or tubes infect the leaves (needles) and twigs of junipers during wet, warm weather.'"
Ben Vanheems on Monday 29 June 2015
"hello am an agricultural engineer from lebanon, my name is joseph and am interested to receive news about pome and stone fruits. regards"
joseph on Tuesday 7 July 2015
"Hello, I moved into a home that has beautiful espaliered pear trees, but the previous owner was just using it as a living fence, helping it heavily pruned just to show off the shape. I would like to keep the beautiful shape, but get it to bear fruit. I did continue to prune this past winter, but have allowed it to grow free this entire spring and summer. Most of the shoots are now 2+ feet long and most do grow straight up. How should I begin to prune to encourage fruit for next year?"
Peggy on Saturday 18 July 2015
"Hi, I have an apple tree(about 8 year old) my neighbor apple tree is right across from the fence (about 5 feets away) mine is about 6 feet taller. I only have very few small fruits on the very top branch. From the old owner, it has been this way for the last 3 years- Seems like it never beared fruits. My neighbor's tree has so many fruits that she can feed a whole village - which is making me a little jealous :) (so i don't think pollination is the issue). Also this year, many of my leaves have holes and a few are yellow/ but most are green. Any suggestion? Thinking of pruning and watering it with a soap/water for the rest of the season. I forgot to mention that I live in Canada - northern Ontario about an hour north of Toronto - Winter can be harsh here). Thanks in advance for you wise advice. All the best. Aida"
Aida on Sunday 19 July 2015
"hi my 4yr old pear tree has made more leaves this year than pears whats gone wrong please"
mrs y mewse on Friday 24 July 2015
"My mother in law has a pear tree in her yard it was there when she moved in 13 years ago she does nothing to it and it is growing alot of fruit but the fruit stays small and I would like to prune it for her so the fruit grows bigger how do I do that? It has a few thick branches that grow straight up and alot of branches growing out "
Clarice MacArthur on Sunday 2 August 2015
"The Fruit on my Pear Tree reached the Harvesting Stage so while I was Harvesting, I decided to Prune the Tree also. I felt that it couldn't hurt the tree pruning it before Dormancy... Or would it? "
SdLb on Sunday 30 August 2015
"Hi Peggy. It sounds like you've got lots of water shoots - a result of hard winter pruning. I would cut all the strongly growing vertical shoots back to two or three buds, as described in the blog article. Do this as soon as you can, before the end of the growing season. In winter, you then need to thin out the fruit bud. Thin out overlapping or congested spur systems, leaving them well spaced. The oldest spurs, which are least likely to be productive, should also be removed."
Ben Vanheems on Friday 4 September 2015
"Hi Aida. It may simply be that your tree is quite old and needs revitalising - a process called 'renovation'. It takes two years to do this, but the end result should be more fruit! Start later this winter, just before spring, by cutting away all dead, diseased and any damaged stems. Also cut away and rubbing or crossing branches and thin out dense, crowded areas in the tree's canopy. You want air and light to begin circulating again. Aim to remove a maximum of a quarter of the tree - no more. Then next winter, keep on with the pruning. This time removing extra long branches, badly placed branches or those that are too low. Try to open up the centre of the tree, cutting in such a way that the new growth grows out from the centre, keeping it open. Remove any completely straight, vertical stems (called water shoots) that have sprung up as a result of the previous winter's pruning. Begin to thin out congested spur systems. Eventually you should have a nice, open, evenly-shaped tree. Good luck with it!"
Ben Vanheems on Friday 4 September 2015
"Hi Mrs Mewse. A profusion of leaves at the sacrifice of fruits could mean inadequate pruning. Follow the pruning guidelines above to keep excess growth under control."
Ben Vanheems on Friday 4 September 2015
"Hi Clarice. The tree is producing lots of fruits, but as a result they are all quite small. Better to have fewer, larger fruits. To do this, follow the summer pruning advice given in the article. You also need to prune in the winter, when the tree is dormant. If the tree is crowded and congested, follow the advice given to Aida above. Keeping the branchwork open, so that light and air can reach all parts of the tree, is essential. You also need to thin out the number of fruiting spurs (where the flowers and fruits emerge) so there are far fewer. Remove congested, crossing and badly placed fruiting spurs in the winter."
Ben Vanheems on Friday 4 September 2015
"Hi SdLb. It's best to prune back new growth, as described in the article, in summer. I don't think pruning at the stage you describe will have caused the tree any harm however. Don't forget most trees will also need a winter prune too - to thin out and remove weak, overlapping or congested spur systems."
Ben Vanheems on Friday 4 September 2015
"I would like to start an espalier double grafted pear against a solid fence. I plan to add timber to each side and middle and run wires to spread. The fence is only 3 m long and 2 high is this an ok size?How do you suggest we do this? Thinking spread a variety each way and when subsequent growth occurs develop a central leader up and spread on next wire? Does this weaken the centre?"
Karen on Monday 7 September 2015
"My husband's parents have a few fruit trees around their house that are in serious need of trimming. I have been meaning to get this taken care of, but I have always been scared that I will damage the tree. I really like what you said about pruning wood that hasn't hardened and creating leafy shoots. I feel a lot more confident that the trees won't be damaged moving forward. Thank you for sharing. http://www.ironwoodearthcare.com "
Sierra Blackman on Saturday 6 February 2016
"My nanny used to always say to me that pruning is the secret to a good harvest! Lots of people underestimate it, but I've been preaching it since I got into gardening and landscaping. Abby, http://www.landscapinglondonuk.co.uk/"
AbbyLees on Tuesday 12 July 2016
"Your nanny was a very wise lady Abby!"
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 12 July 2016
"Good post. Especially, a great tip about looking at the terminal shoot to decide if it's ready to prune."
Martin H on Wednesday 20 July 2016
"Agree with the previous comment – this is a hugely helpful and descriptive tip that I don't remember seeing laid out anything like as clearly elsewhere, despite looking at oodles of other sites, various books, etc. In fact, this has to be the best and clearest-written article I've ever come across on the art of summer pruning. It tells you, in layman's terms, exactly what you're looking at and what to do with it at each step. Equally importantly, it tells you WHY you're doing this and what the result will be – or at least should be (!), couching it in terms of how real trees react, not the purely abstract. Brilliant. Kudos to Helen and many thanks indeed."
David on Thursday 6 July 2017
"Thanks for those encouraging words David, it's really appreciated. Helen doesn't work on the blog anymore, but I will forward your kind comments on to her, as I'm sure she'll be pleased to read them. Happy summer pruning!"
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 6 July 2017
"I do keep up with comments, though. That's jolly kind of you, David (and Martin). Thank you very much and I'm glad the article's been helpful. "
Helen Gazeley on Thursday 6 July 2017
"We planted a new fan pear tree last year and this spring the ends of the main fan branches went black and there has been no new growth. Were they frost damaged do you think? Should they be pruned as they are most likely dead. As they are the main fan branches, how will they be replaced as there has been no new growth this year? The is the first time I have grown a fan tree."
Heather on Wednesday 30 August 2017
"Hi Heather. On each branch I would prune the dead growth back to the next healthiest bud that is pointing in the direction of where you'd like the branch to grow. New shoot's should then appear from near this point and the healthiest/strongest of the shoots may be selected to tie into place and continue growing to replace the damaged branch. The tree has clearly had a bit of a shock from what may have been frost damage. However, the cause may in fact be fireblight, a disease that causes the stems to die back, starting at the top. If the black/dying stems have spread down, then this could be the cause and stems should be cut back at least 30cm/1ft below the infection. Sterilise tools between cuts and burn the infected material."
Ben Vanheems on Sunday 3 September 2017
"I just trimmed some small barnches from my crab appple tree that were too low. did i do it too late in the year. it is now sept.29."
Davud mulligan on Sunday 1 October 2017
"I just did some minor trimming on some low branches of my crab apple tree. I cut off the ends of some low hanging branches. Was it too late in the year to do it."
David mulligan on Sunday 1 October 2017
"I just did some minor trimming on some low branches of my crab apple tree. I cut off the ends of some low hanging branches. Was it too late in the year to do it."
David mulligan on Sunday 1 October 2017
"Hi David. Don't worry too much. Assuming your in a fairly temperate climate there are still a few weeks of growing season left, so the tree will settle down again before winter. Minor trimming is fine to keep the tree in order."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 3 October 2017

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