Decluttering your apple and pear trees


Lee Bestall
10th January 2020

I love a good declutter, and fruit trees appreciate it too.


As the fruit trees bare their stems in winter, take the opportunity to assess and make changes to the structure of apple and pear trees. The seemingly most quintessentially British apple trees is actually a domesticated descendant of wild apples from the mountains of Kazakhstan. Like their wild ancestors, the apple and pear cultivars we know and love do not naturally grow in a neat open structure most productive of large unblemished fruit that is easy to harvest. Some intervention is needed to achieve a shape that is productive, attractive, and manageable.


Aim to achieve an airy and bright open goblet shape, with 4-5 main limbs. When it comes to tools, use some sharp bypass secateurs and a good pruning saw, but loppers can come in handy too. Always cut back to a suitably placed outward and upward facing bud, or remove branches right back to their base. Use a pruning saw to make a tidy final cut at the collar of branches, not leaving stumps behind. If a tree is fully feral, resist the temptation to get over-excited with a saw. Remove no more than 25% of the canopy in a year. First, work through removing the Ds; dead, dying, damaged, and diseased branches. Also remove crossing or rubbing branches. Burn diseased wood.


Next, start to create that open goblet shape by removing branches from the centre of the tree, or branches that are growing into it. Shorten this year’s growth on main branches by one third. Thin any congested side-shoots but leave as many as possible to produce fruiting buds next year.


For the last step, you’ll need to know where your tree produces fruit:

● Spur-bearer; the most common type, producing fruit on many short branched shoots (spurs), such as Cox’s Orange Pippin and James Grieve

● Tip-bearer; the most uncommon type, producing fruit only on branch tips only.

● Partial tip-bearer; with fruit on both the tips and on spurs, such as Bramley’s Seedling and Discovery.


If your tree is a tip- or partial tip-bearer, cut back some of the older and longer fruited branches to a healthy younger shoot closer to the main framework of the tree. This will reduce congestion and overly-long branches. Stop at any point if you start to go beyond removing 25%, that’s your lot for this year. It can take 3 winters to restore a long-neglected tree. You’ve got between now and early March, so wait for a bright day, take a flask and some warm gloves, and enjoy the therapeutic ritual of decluttering your apple and pear trees.


Until next time, happy gardening!

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The Author

Lee Bestall

Lee Bestall

As a horticulturalist and garden designer, I'll be guiding you through the seasons ahead, sharing tips, successes and failures and exploring some of the new and inventive products on the market.

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