JoAnne Skelly: Pruning apple and crabapple trees

I recently pruned my apple and crabapple trees. It’s easier to prune with no blossoms or leaves. You can see the direction of the branches and buds and the location of the water sprouts. The water sprouts are branches that grow straight up instead of laterally. I only want lateral branches because they produce more fruit. Since my trees had been thoroughly pruned last year, I only had young water sprouts to remove. They’re much easier to control with hand shears when little than when they get big and must be removed with a saw. Another advantage to removing water sprouts when they are little is removal of small branches is less stressful for the tree than the removal of large ones.

Proper pruning keeps trees healthy. Here are some tips for pruning correctly.

Always disinfect your tools when working on fruit trees, not only between trees, but between branches on the same tree. This reduces the spread of diseases. I use isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle I keep with me as I prune; it’s easier than bleach and water and less corrosive to tools.

Keep tools sharp. Dull tools wound branches and twigs unnecessarily and create entry points for disease and insects. Use the right sized tool for the job. Too often we try to prune above the size of the tool. Does the size of the branch require a saw rather than loppers? Or loppers instead of hand shears?

Besides removing water sprouts, remove damaged branches or those that interfere with other branches. When removing any branch, no matter its size, don’t leave stubs, but don’t flush cut against the trunk either. There’s a protective ridge at the base of each branch called the branch bark collar. Prune to that ridge, but don’t damage it. This collar allows a nice donut-shaped callous to develop that seals off the tissue from disease and insects. Don’t use tree paint or any other sealer.

Our climate, with its low humidity, drought, wind and intense sun, challenges trees. Pruning stresses trees further, even when you’re careful. Therefore, in Nevada, horticulturists recommend that you only prune 1/4 to 1/3 of a tree per year to keep stress to a minimum.

Contact your local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office for more information on pruning fruit trees. In Carson City, call 775-887-2252. In Douglas County, call 775-782-9960.

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment