Pruning is one of the garden’s most important and satisfying jobs. It keeps shrubs and trees healthy and attractive and over the next few weeks, I always relish the rewarding task of licking my apple trees into shape.

I must emphasise that I’m only recommending work that you can easily and safely do from the ground or a stable pair of ladders. You may need professional help to deal with larger trees that need attention. But many of us have to deal only with small to medium-sized tangly trees.

We want to let as much light and air into the tree as possible when pruning as this keeps it healthy and productive. And when pruning, take the time to stand back to assess the overall shape you’re creating. It sounds crazy, but when you’ve some experience in pruning– any pruning – you develop an instinct that tells you how to shape the tree or shrub in front of you.

The Herald:

For improved air circulation and easier harvesting, I prefer a goblet-shaped specimen, with four or five main branches growing diagonally upward and outward from the trunk. The last thing I want is some inaccessible apples growing in the middle where I can’t reach them. If a tree has been neglected for several years and has become a tangly mess, you may need to rejuvenate over two or three years. If you remove more than a quarter of the canopy in one go, you’ll weaken the tree and you’ll get a forest of whips, vigorous watershoots, which are totally unproductive.

When pruning, start by completely removing any dead, cankerous or otherwise diseased limbs and stems. Then stand back and view your patient. Even if you pruned properly last winter, new growth will have filled as much vacant space as possible.

I always start working at the bottom of the tree, removing downward-pointing stems to keep any fruit above nibble range of my geese. Then work upwards, initially removing the worst tangles. To achieve this, begin by pruning out crossing and spindly, poor stems and ones growing vertically or inwards towards the trunk. It’s usually pretty obvious which crossing ones should be removed and which retained.

READ MORE: Scottish gardening: Raised beds - how to build them

A properly pruned branch should have a fairly regular two-dimensional shape and there should be clear space between each side branch with its fruiting spurs.

Always completely remove any stems or branches, don’t just shorten them to a stump. This looks hideous and you’ll get a forest of spindly little shoots at the end of your stump. Reduce branches almost to the trunk without sawing in to it, and take smaller stems back to a main, diagonally-upward branch.

It’s sometimes impossible to get the pruning saw into the right place, but if you can, aim to saw branches upwards to help prevent ripping and leaving a ragged edge.

Plant of the week:

Mahonia japonica has lemon yellow flowers with a lily-of-the-valley scent which appear from winter to early spring. They grow in long spikes or racemes, which arch above the spiny, evergreen leaves, not dissimilar to those of holly. The shrub will reach 1.5 to 2 metres with a slightly wider spread. Mahonias are woodland plants so thrive in moist but well drained soil in partial shade and with some shelter from strong winds. 

Follow Dave on X @boddave