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How to Prune Fruit Trees

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Though the idea of cutting back trees to produce more fruit may seen counterintuitive, it really is the best thing for your fruit trees. But there are right and wrong ways to prune fruit trees, so stay tuned!

Why prune fruit trees?

In order to grow a sturdy tree that produces and supports a full harvest of delicious fruit, a gardener must invest some time in pruning. Pruning and training a young plant is important in order to establish a healthy tree with a solid structure that can support the crop for years to come. And be sure to first check out my article on How to Plant Fruit Trees to get you set up for success.

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Thinning, or removing branches, is also your first defense against pests and disease. When branches are cut off, the tree’s canopy is opened to allow sunlight penetration and better air circulation. Branches that are shaded don’t tend to produce fruit.

Annual pruning also allows you to control the size and shape of your tree for functional and aesthetic purposes. We have all seen those mangy looking fruit trees that are too tall to be cared for properly, with the fruit hanging high up in the branches. Good for the birds, but not for the tree owner.

An unpruned orange tree with lots of fruit out of reach.

Pruning can seem overwhelming and sometimes down right scary, especially when asked to cut a bare root tree down to knee height after planting. (Yep, really!) I hope you find some insight and encouragement from this article as a new or experienced backyard tree grower. The bottom line is, don’t overthink it, or allow uncertainty to keep you from pruning. This video from Oregon State University has some good information as well. Another useful option is to check with your local extension office for more hands-on help.

The benefits of keeping fruit trees small

For a backyard orchard it is ideal to maintain your trees at a manageable size, especially if you have a smaller yard. You will be grateful for a small tree when it comes time to spray, prune, thin, and especially harvest the fruit.

Fruit that ripens high in the branches will fall to the ground and rot, inviting pests and disease, not to mention the mess left behind. And though you can certainly compost rotten fruit that has hit the ground, having lots of rotted fruit is much more work on you.

Another benefit of small trees is something called high density planting, meaning planting several trees close together. The advantage is that you can plant more varieties of fruit in a limited space. Pruning is essential if you go this route, and it works well for many trees, even if they’re not actually labeled as a “dwarf” variety. For more info about high density planting or the backyard orchard movement, see Dave Wilson’s site.

What’s the best time of year to prune?

A combination of winter and summer pruning can be implemented to maintain a healthy tree that is kept to a manageable size.

Winter, when the leaves are off, is the best time to make your pruning cuts. Late in the dormant season is ideal because pruning wounds made late in the season tend to heal faster. Also, choose a drier time to make your cuts to reduce the chance of introducing disease. Moisture is not your friend when pruning, so watch the weather. Also, when the tree is dormant and bare, it’s easy to see which branches should be trimmed back to a bud (heading cuts) or removed all together (thinning cuts).

Summer pruning, usually done just after harvest, is the most practical method of pruning for size control. Heading cuts, those made just back to the bud, made in the winter encourage rapid new growth, but reducing the canopy in the summer reduces the capacity for new growth, and controls vigor the following spring.

How to prune fruit trees

The Planting Cut

Right after planting, cut the new tree off at knee height, about ¼ inch above a bud, (picture showing the bud and distance) and cut any existing lower branches back to one bud. This encourages the formation of low scaffolding branches (you want about 4 or 5 evenly spaced around the truck) and equalizes the canopy and the root system. This is also a good time to paint the trunk of the young tree with white latex paint to protect it from sunburn and discourage boring insects.

Training branches

Most people haven’t heard about training branches, but it is a very useful practice to ensure the optimal crotch angle of branches. For most trees you want a 45 to 60 degree angle between the branch and trunk or limb (crotch angle). This gives the tree the best structure to prevent the limbs from breaking under the weight of the fruit.

To increase this angle, you can use toothpicks or clothes pins for a young tree and make or buy spreaders as the branches grow thicker. String is also used to pull in or decrease the crotch angle. Another important prevention practice is fruit thinning which we will cover in another post.

Basics of fruit tree pruning

  • First remove dead, diseased, broken, or crossed branches. This is important to maintain a healthy plant and reduce the opportunities for pests or disease to enter. Also look for redundancy, and remove any branch that is growing directly above another one within a close proximity. 
  • Central leader and open-center are the two most common training systems. Central leader, used for apple and pear trees, is characterized by a single main upright trunk like a christmas tree. The open-center or vase-shaped system is exactly as it sounds and is recommended for any tree in your backyard orchard. The main leading branch is removed keeping the center free of branches and upright shoots in order to allow sunlight to reach the lower fruiting wood.
  • To prune to an open center, remove any branches growing into the center of the tree. Also, make heading cuts to the scaffolding branches for the first 2 years to promote continued lateral branching and stiffen/strengthen the scaffolds. Cut at a 45 degree angle ¼ inch above a specific outward facing bud.
  • Remove suckers that grow from root stock whenever you see them coming up. Watersprouts, or rapid upright growth coming off the branches should be trained, or removed according to the ⅓ rule (see below).
  • ⅓ rule: remove no more than 30 percent of the plant’s canopy in a year to prevent stimulating rapid new growth. Be patient, it takes time to retrain a tree that has been neglected.
  • It’s important to make a clean cut with a sharp sanitized tool to prevent damaging your tree (consider these bypass loppers). Never cut into the collar which can damage the tree and cause decay.
  • You should make it a habit to prune your fruit trees every year. Both in the dormant season to create a great shape, and in the summer for size control.

Frequently Asked Questions

What tools do I need for pruning?

How do I clean my tools between cuts?

Use rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or 10 part water to 1 part bleach solution to sterilize your tools. Make sure you clean your tools before moving on to another tree, or before every cut if you suspect disease. Also, remember to keep them well oiled and sharp. See my post on how to clean gardening tools for more tips and a video.

How to prune back older trees that have gotten out of hand?

It will take about 3-5 years to transition back to a manageable tree since you shouldn’t remove more than 30 percent of the canopy in a year. Other options are removing the tree altogether and planting a new one, or re-grafting.

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