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I was just wondering, is it possible to prune an apple tree so that it will grow short? I just would appreciate not to have to get a ladder or anything to be able to get fruit. Is it possible and a good idea, and if so what is the best way to achieve this?

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The traditional way to do this is to buy an apple tree which is grafted onto a dwarfing root stock such as E.M.26. You can keep fruit trees smaller but it's more work without the right rootstock. Keep in mind that even semi dwarf rootstock will "grow to be twice as tall as the average person". Things you can do are listed here but can be summarized as:

  • training starts when you plant the tree. The first three years are a critical time to establish the overall shape. When you first plant a whip or young tree cut it back to two to three feet tall. This helps ensure a smaller mature height.
  • one of the goals of pruning is to have less fruit that is larger. Look to thin branches at the top to let more light in the centre
  • prune well before flowering to promote growth. Mid winter pruning works well in USDA zone 4. Thanks to Michelle for pointing out that if you do not want new growth then prune in mid to late summer.
  • winter or spring pruning includes removing broken branches, crossing or branches that rub together.
  • this publication has an excellent summary of how to shape growth by pruning. In summary:
    • Topping a vertical branch encourages vegetative growth necessary for development of the tree and creates a bushing effect.
    • Topping horizontal branches is done to renew fruiting wood and to thin off excessive fruit.
    • Thinning vertical branches opens the tree to more light.
    • Thinning horizontal branches removes fruit.
    • Horizontal branches left uncut will bear earlier and heavier crops.
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You might want to do a little research on Backyard Orchard Culture. Dave Wilson especially has great info on keeping fruit trees small. My oldest fruit trees are just turning 6 this year, but I've managed to keep them about 6 feet tall with semi-dwarfing rootstock fairly easily. One thing Wilson recommends is summer pruning, because it does not trigger the tree to put on new growth the way winter and spring pruning do. After the initial planting (when I prune heavily), I do all of my pruning in the summer now and it works great.

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    Great advice Michelle. I'm also a fan of Tom Spellman at Dave Wilson's Nursey. Many are scared to prune in summer. A lot of "old-timers" tell me not to prune in summer because the tree will bleed to death. I've found that not to be true. – Randy Aug 11 '13 at 1:07
  • Quick update since I happened to look at this again after a long while: For the past couple years I have not been doing just summer pruning as I mentioned in this post - rather a mix of summer pruning (to keep the trees small) and winter pruning (to remove branches that are growing the wrong direction, into other branches). It is working out very well! – michelle Oct 10 '16 at 14:12
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The apple tree should be pruned yearly, every winter whilst the tree is dormant. Pruning the tree too short can actually lead to an increase in unwanted vigorous growth. The Royal Horticultural Society has a good article on winter pruning for apples and pears.

Alternatively you may be interested in slow growing cultivars of apple trees like the Red Windsor.

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