During the early years of an apple tree's life, pruning helps develop the tree's shape and structure for optimal fruit production. But don't think that pruning ends once your trees mature or begin bearing fruit. Apple trees need annual pruning to maintain their shape and remove weak and dead branches. Always prune apple trees in the late winter once frost danger has passed, as fall pruning can leave them vulnerable to winter injury.
Inspect your apple tree for dead, diseased or damaged wood. Look for wood that is physically marred, discolored, bent or brittle.
Prepare a disinfectant solution in a bucket using 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. Place your pruning tools in this solution.
Strip off any dead, diseased or damaged wood by cutting it off at the base. Use hand pruners for wood less than 3/4-inch in diameter and lopping shears for larger wood. Place the tools back in the disinfectant solution in between each cut to avoid spreading bacteria or fungus.
Dispose of all dead and diseased wood in the garbage bin, then throw out the bleach solution before continuing.
Trim away any suckers that grow from below the graft site or off the tree trunk. Suckers sap energy from fruiting wood. Remove any downward-growing branches using your anvil pruners.
Thin out the canopy by removing any growth that makes a 30 degree or more acute angle with the trunk. This growth is too close to vertical and will shade your branches, harming fruit production. Strip all nearly-vertical growth back to its originating branch.
Clip back your scaffold limbs, or the main limbs of your apple tree, by one-quarter of their length. This promotes lateral branching, which will result in more fruiting wood on your mature apple tree.
Reduce the number of offshoots from these scaffold branches, leaving three offshoots per branch. This prevents future crowding and eliminates future pruning work.
Prune away weak wood that is thinner than a pencil's width and cannot hold the weight of a grown apple.