How to Prune Single-Stem Apple Trees


The least expensive way to start an apple orchard is to purchase young apple saplings, usually called whips since they look like short, slender, rooted twigs lacking any branches. Pruning the single stem in the first year improves the structure of the tree and prepares it for future load-bearing a couple years down the road. Closely spaced or acute-angled branches are avoided in early training to create a well-shaped, open-branched young apple tree.

Step 1

Measure the height of 30 to 34 inches on the single-stem apple whip with a tape or yard stick. Do this immediately after planting the sapling or in midspring just as the buds are swelling but not opening on the tip of the whip.

Step 2

Make a pruning cut at this height, making a crisp one-motion clip of the hand pruners. If any lower small branches exist on the whip, trim them off, making a cut 1/4 inch above their attachment to the main vertical whip stem.

Step 3

Allow the apple whip to grow new growth along its length until a time later in spring or earliest summer when the new growth's length is 3 to 4 inches long.

Step 4

Create the scaffold whorl by selecting three to four strong, evenly spaced sprouting stems from the top of the apple whip.

Step 5

Select one sprout nearest the top that looks to be growing straight up and could visually become the new upright stem off of the whip. This sprout becomes the new leader, or growing tip for the tree.

Step 6

Including the new leader sprout, select two or three other sprouts that are 3 to 4 inches apart in height along the top of the whip. Choose sprouts that radiate outward from the whip in opposite but even directions. If you wish to retain three sprouts, see if you can get them about 60 degrees apart from each other, roughly, when you look down on the plant from the top. If only two sprouts are worth keeping, hopefully they are nearly opposite on the stem from each other so the tree won't grow with a lopsided canopy.

Step 7

Prune off all sprouts from the whip that are not the chosen new branches in Step 6. Make the pruning cut 1/5 inch above their attachment to the central whip stem. Make sure you remove any little sprouts along the lower portions of the whip, too. You want a clean whip stem with only the new sprout leader and two or three new branch sprouts when done.

Step 8

Clip a springed clothespin near the middles of each of the young side branches so that they are trained to grow at an angle of roughly 60 to 70 degrees from the whip stem. Adjust the location of the clothespin as needed so it doesn't tear at the young stem, falls off, or causes the branch tip to sag too close to parallel to the ground. Don't pin leaves; make sure the pin clasps its groove atop the non-green portion of the tender side branches.

Step 9

Monitor the growing apple tree, clipping away any sprouts from central stem that are not the original leader and side branches selected from Step 6. This needs to be done once a month up until midsummer.

Step 10

Remove the clothespin once the trained side branches firm up and hold the 60- to 70-degree angle. Remove the clothespins earlier if you notice any scarring or indentations occurring on the branch bark surface. Typically, the branches should hold their trained stature by midsummer at the latest.

Step 11

Allow the young developing apple tree to grow with no more pruning the rest of the growing season and enter winter dormancy.

Tips and Warnings

  • Failure to conduct summer pruning of the whip, Steps 4 through 7, will create an improperly structured apple tree. This will lead to added maintenance and pruning issues the new growing season to correct.

Things You'll Need

  • Measuring tape or yard stick
  • Hand pruners (secateurs)
  • Springed clothespins


  • North Carolina Cooperative Extension: Training & Pruning Fruit Trees
  • Virginia Cooperative Extension: Training and Pruning Apple Trees
Keywords: apple whips, training apple trees, first year pruning, pruning apple seedlings

About this Author

James Burghardt has written for "The Public Garden," "Docent Educator," nonprofit newsletters and for horticultural databases, becoming a full-time writer in 2008. He's gardened and worked professionally at public and private gardens in Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. He has written articles for eHow and GardenGuides.