Stepover Apple Trees: Winter Pruning

Stepover Apple Trees

Training an apple or pear tree as a ‘stepover’ or ‘horizontal cordon’ form is a great way to make productive use of a relatively small space. Stepover trees are extremely compact, making them wonderfully easy to maintain and harvest from. They are often used to provided decorative and productive borders or living wind-breaks for other growing areas in a garden or allotment setting.

The aim of a stepover form is to develop a strong, short main stem (trunk) with two substantial horizontal main branches, and a network of fruiting spurs along the length of those branches.

Illustration from Traité de la Taille des Arbres Frutiers, A. F. Hardy, 1888 edition, showing several single-stem stepover trees in a decorative arrangement

Spur-bearing varieties of apples are generally more suitable for stepover training than those that are more inclined towards tip-bearing; fruit buds don’t form on first-year growth stems, so if you’re going to prune away the majority of your first-year tips every year, you’ll be removing those potentially-fruiting tip buds on a regular basis.

Of even greater importance is the selection of an appropriate rootstock, which should be dwarfing or semi-dwarfing (i.e. M27 or M9) to avoid the tree growing far too vigorously to be successfully trained. In practice, this either means grafting your own tree (hugely satisfying), or buying a pre-trained stepover on appropriate rootstock from a reputable fruit nursery. Don’t just grab one of those bargain bin trees from a supermarket and hope for the best; chances are you’ll end up with an unruly mess withing a couple of growing seasons.

Our Trio of Stepover Apples

On our main allotment plot we have three stepover apple trees, all of which I grafted in February 2018, using scions from the heritage orchard at work (Ordsall Hall in Salford) and M27 rootstocks obtained via our local contact at the Northern Fruit Group.

The three saplings in question were selected from amongst a larger batch of newly-grafted trees. As they grew, these three developed a double-leader – two strong stems growing from just above the graft union – which meant I was able to gently bend those stems and weight them down (using bricks and string), which helped those horizontal branches to fix in place over their first winter.

In year two I planted the trees out on the plot, tying them in to a simple bamboo cane support: a horizontal ‘beam’ of three long canes lashed together, with a similar vertical arrangement in the centre and single canes at either end, and then watched to see how they developed.

I’m very happy to say they all seem to have established well, sending out long primary growth stems in their first year from a number of buds along the horizontal branches, as you can hopefully see below (click the photo for a lager image if the detail is blending into the heap of woodchip in the background).

Stepover trained apple, showing a full year’s primary growth, January 2020

If I’d followed the traditional pruning advice for trained forms as given in the vast majority of guides, text-books and websites, none of that growth would still be on the tree; I would have pruned it away last August or September. Instead, I deliberately left the side-shoots on the stepovers – and also on the cordons that we have nearby – to grow and develop fully, before pruning them just a week or so ago. It’s part of a trial I’m running to test out some of the theories I’ve read about during my ongoing research project into modern pruning methodologies based on tree morphology, architecture and growth behaviours, rather than historical tradition. Much more about that at a later date.

Making The Pruning Cuts

On this particular stepover there were seven pruning cut decisions to be made, as shown:

Stepover apple showing pruning cut decision points

The horizontal main stems aren’t included because they haven’t reached the end of the support just yet. Leaving them un-pruned will allow them to continue to grow until they reach the desired extent. In future years they’ll be pruned back to upward-facing buds, limiting the growth to the length of the support.

The cuts I did make were quite simple. Stems #1 to #3 and #5 to #7 – all vertical, or near-vertical shoots – were cut back to 4 or 5 buds out from the basal cluster, to an outward-facing bud. All cuts were made at a downward-sloping angle, to take rainwater away from the chosen bud, which will become the apical bud next season and determine the direction of any re-growth on the stem.

Stepover apple post-pruning, showing the shape of the pruned tree

The shortened stems will hopefully provide the basis for a strong fruiting spur network in future years; the length of stem should allow for a cluster of spurs on each, which with judicious selection and thinning in years to come should encourage good repeat cropping on an annual basis.

The one exception was stem #4. That stem was growing out at right angles away from the main, linear shape of the tree, into a space that I use as a path. To reduce the chance of re-growth next season I took that stem off as close to the collar as I could (see centre-pic, below):

January 2020 stepover apple - pruning cuts
Stepover apple post-pruning, close-up showing a selection of cuts

Similar decisions and cuts were made on the other two trees. I’ll be monitoring the re-growth of all three trees over the course of this growing season, and will report back at regular intervals.

Plus: Scions

An added bonus to leaving the pruning of these stepovers to January was that the cut stems are rather excellent scion material, should I want to graft any of these particular varieties:

Straight, well-budded stems like these make for rather excellent scion material

If I had cut them back in August or September, they would still have been as long, but they wouldn’t have been fully dormant, and I would have had to store the scions in the fridge for a few months, rather using them immediately or just storing them for a week or two.

Any Questions?

As I mentioned, I’ll be talking a lot more about the theories behind this particular pruning strategy, and others, in a series of posts later in the year. But if you have any questions in the meantime, please do feel free to leave a comment via the form at the bottom of the page.

2021 Update

28th Feb – I’ve posted a winter pruning: year two update with details of fruiting (or not) in 2020, re-growth over the season, and this year’s pruning regime, with plenty of new photos.

10 comments

  1. Hi i have purchased a couple of stepover apples do i leave the main horizontal stems alone until i have reached the required length or should i reduce the length of them by one third so as to encourage bud developement along the whole length of the horizontal stems

    1. Hi Jonathan – Yes, it’s very important to leave the horizontal stems to grow out to the full length required before you prune them.

      If you leave them un-pruned, the growth-tip will continue to grow in spring, extending the horizontal branch in a straight(ish) line, and although it will try to bend towards upright, the new growth will be soft enough to keep tying it down to the horizontal supports, to keep it nice and straight.

      If you were to prune the end of the branch, then the final bud left on the branch will take over this new growth and, depending on its direction, could introduce a distinct kink, or angle, into the branch as it grows. And the next few buds will become more likely to break out into side-growth rather than fruiting spurs. And side-growth will naturally develop along the horizontal branches, without any need to encourage it. You do want to try to keep side-growth to a minimum if you want to maintain the stepover form, which a dwarfing rootstock (M9 or M27 in the UK) will help to do. If you want to, as the branches reach the end of the support, you could allow them to grow upwards more, and try to train them vertically, to create a wide ‘U’ shaped tree, but then you’d lose that stepover shape.

      I’ll be posting a follow-up piece in the next couple of weeks, once I’ve done this year’s pruning, so you’ll be able to see how things are going…

  2. Hi i purchased two apple and two pear stepover trees and i have aprox 2 to 3 feet either side of the main trunk. M y question please is that on one apple ( Egremont russet ) i have very few side shoots breaking along tyh right hand horizontal arm, should i wait for them to break or should the arm be reduced by a third to stimulate the shoots to break.

    1. Hello again Jonathan, welcome back.

      I’d suggest leaving the branch alone for now, see how it develops this year. Depending on where you are in the world and how your growing season usually pans out, it could be too early for new growth to have started – on our orchard the blossom clusters and their surrounding leaves are just about to break open, but main leaf and side-shoot growth hasn’t re-started yet.

      And as per my previous reply, you don’t really want a lot of side-shoot growth on a stepover. The aim is to develop two strong, horizontal branches with good fruiting spurs along them. Those spurs will naturally develop in time, although it might take a couple of seasons. But trimming the end of the branch is more likely to result in stem growth, rather than fruit buds or spurs.

      Please do have a look at my year two stepover update post for details of how I pruned my stepover trees this year.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Thanks for your advice.. Further to my previous comments on the Egremont russet stepover. The right hand arm has produce a consistant number of shoots along its arm but the left hand arm has not produced any at all still. I have severel Pear stepovers and other Apple stepovers which all are growing well with shoots along both arms. I might be a bit impatient and hope the Egremont will play ball this season

    1. Yeah, I wouldn’t worry too much about slightly uneven growth patterns, they’ll probably even out in subsequent years. If nothing else, you’ll be stopping the more vigorous branch’s extension growth once it reaches the end of the support and pruning back the side shoots, which will give the other branch a chance to catch up. As long as there are no signs of disease or damage of course, always worth double-checking for canker if there’s a branch that’s not leafing and growing well.

  4. Last year I pruned my 2 stepover apples (Falstaff and Fiesta) too early The result was long spurs that produced little fruit. This year I am going to wait till leaf fall. My question is does this type of tree need any summer pruning,

  5. Hi Ken –

    Firstly, I wouldn’t worry too much about last year’s pruning having directly prevented fruiting this year. There are so many other variables that could have had an effect.

    The main culprit for poor fruiting in 2021 here in the UK – assuming you are in the UK and depending on which part of the country you’re in and what the weather patterns were like at the time – was probably the cold snap and very late frosts we had in May, which could easily have damaged the blossom on the trees, or the buds just as they were opening, or just kept pollinator numbers low when the blossom was open. Both Falstaff and Fiesta are in Pollination Group 3 (or C) so probably would have been in flower at a very similar time, which means spell of bad weather could have affected both trees at once.

    The age of the trees is important as well: if they’re still quite young then there’s a good chance they simply haven’t reached maturity just yet. Trees on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstock (M9 or M27) do tend to fruit earlier than those on more vigorous rootstocks, but they can still take 2, 3 or even 4 years to reach maturity.

    Or, if the trees are mature and produced a good amount of fruit last year, they might not have had enough energy to set the fruit buds for this year. Have a look at my post on biennial bearing for more info: https://orchardnotes.com/2021/07/03/far-fewer-apples-and-pears-than-last-year-perfectly-normal/

    In any of the above cases, the fact that the trees aren’t putting their energy into fruit production this year will inevitably lead to longer extension growth of their side-shoots, as there’s simply more surplus energy available for vegetative growth.

    The benefit of those long shoots is that there’s probably a lot of leaf on the trees – presumably, unless you’ve had a very dry spell and they’ve dropped – which means more potential for photosynthesis and therefore more energy for root development, trunk and branch thickening – which means a stronger, healthier tree in future seasons – and more opportunity for the tree to withdraw nitrogen from the leaves in autumn, to store in its roots over winter. That in turn should mean stronger, earlier leaf re-growth next spring, which again is a good thing, unless we have another bout of sharp, late frost.

    So, to answer your question: no, I don’t believe that stepover trees need to be summer pruned at all, unless you have damaged stems, or a disease problem that needs dealing with, or they’re causing an obstruction, trip-hazard or other potential health and safety issue, or they’re part of a formal planting scheme, say in a public garden that needs to maintain a neat and tidy aesthetic.

    Do have a look at my follow-up stepover pruning post as well, to see how I carried on the winter pruning programme: https://orchardnotes.com/2021/02/28/stepover-apple-trees-winter-pruning-year-two/ – I’ll be providing a further update early next year as well.

    Hope that helps!

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