Bees buzz lazily. Leaves rustle in the breeze. Somewhere amongst them are apples (or pears) forming on the bough. Gosh, you think, wouldn't it be great if that tree put more energy into producing fruit, instead of giving out all those leaves? Well, with a bit of help, it will.
Summer pruning has always been carried out on trained apples and pears—those in the form of cordons or espaliers and all the other clever shapes that can be created from their branches. Summer pruning is less common on untrained trees, but as garden apples and pears are now almost always grown on dwarfing stock (tall, standard trees are not pruned in summer), it's not only possible, but they'll be much easier to control and you'll gain a deeper understanding of how your trees work.
Two caveats. First, you may have a tip-bearing tree, which means its fruit forms at the tips of branches instead of on short "spurs" along the branches, and these need pruning with more caution. Here, I'm writing about spur-bearing trees, which are far more common, especially among more modern varieties.
Second, if your tree seems to be a bit of a weakling, put the pruners away. When you're cutting away foliage you're reducing the tree's food factory, and this will contribute to its weakness. Chances are, though, that you have a mature spur-bearer that positively bristles with foliage. This is your moment.
The effect of summer pruning
The two reasons for summer pruning are to improve the harvest next year and to improve this year's crop. Go and have a good look at your tree before you wield the pruners. The shoots that have grown this year will be fairly soft for most of their length; they'll also be leafy and vigorous and probably overshadowing the fruit that's there.
That fruit is going to mature better without the shade. Allowing more air and sunshine to reach the fruit will increase size and sweetness, improve its color, allow for easier picking and reduce the chance of pests and disease taking hold (partly because you can see any problems sooner, partly because air and light are healthier than a damper, darker microclimate created by shade and stiller air).
However, magically, removing those shoots should also result in a larger harvest next year. This is because, while the tree produces fruiting spurs naturally, summer pruning persuades it to produce even more. For various reasons, removing most of a shoot of this year's growth encourages the buds which are left behind to become fruit buds instead of leaf buds. It doesn't always happen, so if some of the shoots you prune merely grow a leafy extension again, you don't have to assume that you did something wrong.
How to summer prune apple and pear trees
Summer pruning mainly takes place in mid summer (July and August in the northern hemisphere), but it's a good idea to go out early and acquaint yourself with what's going on, so you know what you'll be lopping off next month. If your tree is very advanced you could start straight away.
Look at this year's growth. While it's still growing, the shoot will terminate in a growing point carrying a small, lighter green leaf. You need to wait until the growing point is set. Although it doesn't sound it, this really won't be difficult to spot because, instead of that small, light-coloured leaf, the shoot will carry all adult leaves.
At the same time, the wood at the bottom of the shoot, where it joins the trunk or branch, will have become stiff and woody (that's "lignified" for those who like scientific terminology). This usually happens at any length over 9 inches (23 cm). Pruning wood that hasn't hardened will just result in new leafy shoots.
Any shoots under 9 inches (23 cm) long can be ignored. This is because this shorter growth is likely to carry fruit buds naturally.
Shoots are pruned back to a stub around 3 inches in length. It'll be carrying 2 to 3 buds, and you should make the cut just above a bud or leaf. It is possible to prune harder by cutting back to a very short stub around an eighth of an inch (3mm) long, but this takes enormous courage when you first start out and many people never prune that hard.
What you should cut right back to the branch are the water shoots, which tend to form after a hard winter prune. These are very vigorous, grow straight up into the air from the main branches, and draw lots of energy from the tree. Only leave a water shoot if you want it to become a permanent branch to replace one that's damaged or to improve the shape of the tree.
In an ideal world, where we all prune perfectly and trees behave as they should, this year's shoots will arise from the main trunk or branches. This not being an ideal world, you'll find that new shoots have arisen from shoots that last year either weren't pruned at all or, if they were, produced more leafy growth instead of turning themselves into a fruiting spur. In this case, prune back to one bud just above the start of this year's growth.
Take your time
That really is all there is to it. As not all terminal buds set at once, it's generally recommended that you carry it out when around three-quarters of the buds are set. However, I suspect that this advice is mainly aimed at people who have whole orchards to attend. For the home gardener, the lovely thing is that this is a gardening job that doesn't have to be done all at once. Instead, you can take your time and attend to the shoots as they mature.
There's nothing more pleasant on a summer evening than taking a cup of tea or glass of wine out with the pruners and finding a few more shoots that are ready for summer pruning.
By Helen Gazeley