Alys Fowler: pruning apple trees

‘Pruning is only one part of the maintenance routine you need for a good crop of apples.’ Photograph: Getty Images

I learned to prune apples at the side of Jim and Charlie in the orchards at Wisley. Jim was quiet and careful about his teaching. You craned to take in every detail, each tree was individual, each cut important. Charlie was gregarious; he morris-danced and taught us how to lob a rotten apple (on the end of a pruning saw, it curve-balls perfectly and hits the unexpected in a great splatter). He also taught us to be fast, to look ahead at the next tree while we worked.

You can learn to prune apples from a book, but it’s easier and more fun to learn from a person. If you can, go on a course, such as the ones offered at Brogdale, the home of the apple, in Kent. If nothing else, sit through the delightfully old-fashioned Royal Horticultural Society videos, though unfortunately they don’t feature either Jim or Charlie. The detail matters in pruning, and if you are a beginner, keep referring back to a book: the RHS Pruning & Training manual remains the best.

Pruning is only one part of the maintenance routine you need for a good crop of apples. Trees also need regular feeding. Mulch with compost in spring and try growing comfrey nearby: it is rich in both nitrogen and potassium, nutrients essential for successful growth and fruiting.

Every year, remove dead, diseased or dying material, and take out any branches that are badly placed or crossing. You need to maintain a regular supply of new wood, which will provide the fruit, but never remove more than a third of the old wood at any one time. Take off too much, and the tree goes into shock and produces a lot of watershoots – upright shoots that won’t fruit and appear mostly from the trunk.

A well-trained tree looks like a goblet, with four or five branches around an empty centre. Light and air need to bounce around the middle, so remove young branches that wander into this territory or the innermost fruit won’t ripen properly.

Apples are either tip- or spur-bearers. Tip-bearers are less common and produce fruit at the tips of branches, rather than on short spurs. For spurs, shorten last year’s new growth on each main branch by a third, by snipping off the tip to a bud. The growth that lies behind, the young laterals, should then be shortened to five to six buds.

An old, overgrown tree is like a grandmother; she needs to be treated with respect. She has earned her rest and won’t be made suddenly productive by a harsh haircut. Her place now is to be a habitat for others, a great climbing frame, and every now and then she will offer up a reward.