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.

2 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…

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