Why do we grow apple trees? Well, for the fruit, of course, we all love a nice crisp and juicy apple and there is nothing like biting into an apple that you have grown yourself.
Apples come in all sorts of varieties and if you have grown an apple tree from seed, you will have your own unique variety. There are also variations in how you can grow your apple trees too with some ways bearing more fruit than others.
In the article below we will cover how to train a free-standing apple tree.
What Does Training an Apple Tree Mean?
Training an apple tree is the process of making the branches grow in a way that is beneficial to overall tree health to ensure that you crop the best possible fruits.
There are various ways that you can train apple trees; they can be trained as cordons, fans, and espaliers to ensure each branch gets the desired amount of light, therefore, giving it the best opportunity to produce. All these ways require the tree to be grown against a fence or wall and the branches splayed to ideal distances.
Although a free-standing apple tree is not grown against any kind of support structure like the others above, many of the principles are the same and much of the training is done in the same, if not similar way.
Why do you Need to Train an Apple Tree?
Without the right training, a tree will grow too many branches which means that the tree will expend much-needed energy, providing nutrients to each branch instead of swelling the fruits which is what we really want.
Apple trees will grow in a random upward shape and without help, the branches will often grow at an angle smaller than 45° meaning that all the growth ends up bunched together and not enough light reaches where it is needed.
Training apple trees is important to ensure each branch is getting adequate light and air throughout the day as wood bathed in light is productive wood and that is what we want!
How to Train an Apple Tree?
Even with free-standing trees, there is a variety of ways to train them to become great fruit bearers, but we are going to show you our preferred method and it is called the modified central leader.
Like all the methods you can use to train free-standing apple trees, it is far easier to work with smaller trees that are grown on dwarfed rootstocks. In the UK, an ideal rootstock is the MM106 which will grow to approximately 4m tall although once trained, this will be much shorter.
If you have grown your apple tree from seed, the modified central leader will still work although the tree is likely to get very tall which can make managing it very difficult.
Modified Central Leader
The modified central leader is our preferred method and over the years, we have found that it has produced the best harvests and top-quality fruits.
The main trunk that usually grows straight up and from which new branches form is known as the leader. The modified central leader system basically removes the central leader and ensures that there are 3 or 4 strong leader branches to form our primary scaffold from which our secondary fruit-bearing scaffold will grow.
New Apple Tree Pruning Year 1
It is best to buy an apple tree that is around a year old and plant it in the winter when the ground is neither frozen nor waterlogged.
Leaving at least 3 or 4 evenly spaced fresh buds that are facing different directions, prune the stem back to around 24 inches tall just above the highest bud. The buds that are below the cut will grow the following summer and start to form your first branches.
New Apple Tree Pruning Year 2
Your 2-year-old tree should now have 3 or 4 new branches that grew over the summer and these 4 main branches are known as the primary scaffold (all these branches are now leaders instead of 1 central leader).
Prune all the branches back to around 50% up to an outward-pointing bud and gently rub off any inward-facing buds as these will be a nuisance if they are left to grow.
New Apple Tree Pruning Year 3
By the third winter, numerous lateral shoots will have grown from the branches and you will want to choose some of the stronger outward-facing shoots to be your new branches making up your secondary scaffold.
Prune back all the branches; primary and secondary by around 30% and just above a new outward-pointing bud.
Any new lateral shoots that are not chosen to be secondary scaffolds should be pruned back just above the 4th bud from its base.
Now you will need to remove side shoots from the stem, prune these back flush with the stem and voila!
The shape of your adult tree is all but established.
Thinning Your Fruits for Best Results
With a store-bought tree, you could expect to start getting fruit when the tree is around 5 years old. This is not guaranteed however as it may take another few years.
To get the best out of our fruit, we will need to do some thinning. Thinning means removing any fruit that may be weak or damaged so they are not using the tree’s resources to continue growing, therefore, giving the fruits that are left more time to grow.
Apple trees will naturally do some thinning of their own and this is known as the June drop. The apple tree will drop apples that are not likely to make it but the tree will not drop enough.
What we like to do is wait until after the June drop and then trim each cluster of apples down to just 2 fruits and when doing so, we get rid of the large central apple known as the king fruit.
Once we have thinned down each cluster, the apples that are left over will have less competition for resources therefore swelling and growing into nice and juicy fruits.
With a little help, your apple tree will bear many fruits for a very long time. By only having 3 or 4 main leader branches that are spread facing different directions, we can ensure that the growth of the tree is more focused on providing an even distribution of nutrients rather than focusing on just one leader.
The other great thing about having just 3 or 4 strong branches is that the tree, the branches and the fruit will all get more air circulating and more light which aids growth and also helps the fruit ripen.
Garden Doctor Tips
“When pruning, do not forget to make your cuts at an angle!”
“Buy a 1-year-old tree from your local garden centre and plant it on a nice day in December when it’s not frozen and the ground is not waterlogged!”
“Remember, if you grow an apple tree from seed, you never know what you will get until you do a taste test!”
“Do not forget that apple trees thrive against walls as espaliers, some even say that the apples taste better too!”
Frequently Asked Questions
Are apple trees hard to train?
With a little knowledge and hard work, apple trees are easy to train. They can be trained as free-standing, espaliers, fans and even cordons.
How long does it take to train an apple tree?
With the right growing conditions and careful pruning, a free-standing apple tree can be trained and your primary structural wood will be established in as little as 3-4 years.
What is the modified central leader system?
The modified central leader system encourages branches to grow at a specific height. This is especially useful when growing fruit trees such as apples, pears, and cherries.
Can I train an established apple tree?
Although it may be a little more difficult to train an established tree, it can be done with a lot of careful pruning and a little hard work.
Hi, I’m Trev and I’ve been growing things since I can remember. When I was younger, I grew up on a farm, so I have always been around plants and animals. After studying horticulture at university, I decided to start my own nursery which I have run now for 25 years. In my spare time, I run this website – which is a resource for people who want to learn more about their gardens.