Pruning an apple tree whip


Hello Master Gardeners,

This past summer I posted a question on what to do with an apple tree seedling over its first winter because I wasn’t sure whether to bring it inside. I received a response saying I should plant it so it can go through its natural dormancy stage. I did this in a sheltered area of my garden but this area is not it’s permanent home so I planted it in its pot which I can easily pull up come spring. As a side note I know that apple trees don’t grow true from seed. This is just an experiment with growing fruit trees from seed.

Now I’m thinking to the future of this tree and shaping it. The whip is about 16″ tall at this point so my next question is about pruning and branching. Do apple trees start to branch naturally? I always took it for granted looking at trees (any kind of tree) that branching happened naturally and in the case of fruit trees pruning is only needed to produce optimal branching and for general maintenance such as taking off dead branches.

In all my research I haven’t found anything that says an apple tree will begin to branch naturally after a few years. I’m thinking about wild fruit trees that might begin to grow from seed out in an orchard from fallen fruit. Would these stay as single stem trees if not pruned?

Beyond whether a tree naturally branches or not I understand that with fruit trees there is a need to prune for optimal branching. I read about the central leader system but I’m unsure as to when to start this. I read the whip should be cut at about 30″ (so its age is not a factor) and other pages said after 3 or 4 years (so height is not a factor).

What is the best approach? Is it at a certain height it should be cut or am I looking for certain traits (ex: an optimal thickness of the whip’s stem, etc.) which suggest pruning is dependent on the age of the tree?




Sounds like an interesting experiment.

The purpose of pruning an apple tree in the first 3 to 4 years after planting is to control its shape by developing a strong, well-balanced framework consisting of a central leader with scaffold branches. Apple trees should have a vaguely Christmas tree shape with the lowest scaffold branches having the widest spread. Most apple trees will not grow into this shape without help. Unwanted branches should be removed when small to avoid the necessity of large pruning cuts in later years.

A one-year-old bare-root whip is ideal to plant. Cut it back to around 30 inches to help reestablish the plant’s previous shoot-to-root ratio.

For a branched tree:

  1. Leave branches that are wide-angled and arranged spirally about 6- to 9-inches apart up the leader (trunk).
  2. Remove poorly spaced and narrow-angled branches.
  3. Branches left on the tree should be reduced by up to one-half their length.
  4. Cut the leader about 12 to 15 inches above the top limb.

Here is a link for some additional information.

The following video from made by the University of Utah is a good visual on pruning a young apple tree.

Good luck in your experiment and with your apple whip.