No other part of fruit growing creates more uncertainty and confusion than pruning.
Terminology such as renewal pruning, replacement pruning, tip bearers, spur bearers, fruit buds and growth buds abound and cause confusion and trepidation. And that's before the question of winter or summer pruning has been raised. So, as it's freezing out there, let's deal with winter pruning hints.
Pruning an apple tree
Get yourself a good sharp pair of secateurs and a modern pruning saw with a very sharp blade. Both will last you all your life with care.
Stand back from the tree and take a good look around it first. Then, decide how you would like it to look when you have finished and what you are trying to achieve. Pruning in the garden is often as much about the shape of the tree and how it fits with the available space, as it is about getting maximum fruit crop.
Always ensure that you try to maximise the amount of sunlight that can enter the tree. Remember that in the summer there will be a full crop of leaves, which will block out much of the available light. The more sunlight that can reach developing buds, the stronger will be the fruit buds for the next year, and that means lots more big juicy fruits.
Unless you have trained trees, the best shape to aim for is an 'A' shaped tree, ensuring the maximum light penetration.
The best fruits occur nearest to the main stem or main branches, so it's important to prune out long straggling branches with little fruit bud on them and retain the shorter more productive wood.
Generally you can tell fruit buds from growth buds by the fact that the fruit buds are plump and white with a downy covering, whilst growth buds are brownish, longer and thinner.
Most trees will have some dead wood in them, especially if they have not been pruned for a few years. Cut out that dead wood, and very often, you will find that new shoots grow from around the pruning cut, and a replacement can be selected the following year if need be.
Never let a branch stay in a tree that is more than half the diameter of the main stem. Ideally, branches should be no more than one third the thickness of the main stem.
Do not be afraid to make more pruning cuts than you imagined that you would. In the middle of summer, you will wonder why you did not cut more branches out. If you are not very experienced at pruning, then try this: Prune the tree to how you think it should look. Go and make a cup of tea and then come back out and prune it again. After the second pruning it should be about right.
Prune trees every year. It will retain the shape, prevent the wrong thickness of wood in the tree and ensure that diseased or broken branches are removed.
Remember, pruning a tree will never kill it, and will almost always improve it greatly both in the quality of the fruit and the longevity of the tree. Always remove the pruning from the ground around the tree as they will often start to grow fungus upon them which can easily transfer to the tree or fruit.
Imagination is your strongest weapon in pruning. Imagine what the tree will look like after you finish; what it will look like in the spring covered in blossom; and importantly how great the apples will taste next Autumn.
Will Sibley is the Chairman of the horticulturally research focused East Malling Trust.