Basic Fruit Tree Pruning Tips

Pruning can be a delicate process. As Michael Phillips puts it, pruning is almost like time traveling as you envision what the tree will look like in the future after you make your pruning cuts. Pruning varies not only by species, but by variety, time of year, desired outcome, age, and other growth habits of the tree in question.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Practice good orchard hygiene: sterilize your pruners between trees, especially if summer pruning or pruning diseased branches out
  • Do not remove more than ⅓ of the tree in a year
  • To prevent bacteria from entering your cut, prune just after the collar* when making a thinning cut - don't prune it off, and don't leave a stub 2cm long
  • The first 2 (dwarf) to 3 (semi-dwarf/full size) years, focus on vegetative growth, establishing a strong structure to support the weight of future crops. After your 2-3 years of dormant, vegetative-growth-inducing pruning, switch to summer, fruit-focused pruning
  • Remove narrow crotch angles (where the trunk and the branch meet) since these are less sturdy
  • Remove branches that are growing back into the tree or across more desirable branches
  • Don't prune your tree unless the forecast is above ~0°F/-17°C for the next 7 days when winter pruning. Early spring is best, before buds swell.
  • Prune the canopy so it is open with good airflow and light penetration to help the fruit ripen and reduce the presence of fungal diseases
  • Thinning Cut: This is done by cutting a branch off an existing branch. It produces less of a branching/vegetative effect. Think of energy flowing through the branch, and after you have done a thinning cut the energy just continues to flow to the remaining branch.
  • Heading Cut: This is done by cutting the tip of a branch off in the middle of it, away from other smaller branches branching off. Think of energy flowing through the branch, and after you have done a heading cut, it has nowhere to go so it pops out in all directions: on young wood, it produces a strong branching effect. The first 3-4 buds below the cut will naturally shoot up with vertical growth, letting buds 4-6 create nice naturally horizontal little branches a few weeks later. Make a heading cut in the spring, come back and remove those vertical shoots in June/July, and you'll set your tree up to put the rest of its growing energy into developing those nicely angled, horizontal branches for the rest of the season.
  • For fruit production, establish horizontal branches, and summer prune after the first growth flush (usually June/July for our area) to set your tree up for the following year. Most fruit trees produce fruit on 2+ year old branches. As a branch becomes more horizontal, the hormones in the branch change and grow spurs which will produce fruit the following year ('spur-bearing'). Some fruit trees produce on 1 yr old branches, from the tips ('tip-bearing'), like quince trees, or the Golden Russet apple so this rule doesn't always hold true. Check the variety description on our website to see if it's tip-bearing or spur-bearing.
  • For vegetative growth, prune in spring while the trees are still dormant (Feb/March in our area). A general rule of thumb is the harder you prune, the more vegetative growth you will get; however especially on old trees, never prune more than 1/3-1/2 of the tree, or you risk killing it completely.
  • Apple and Pear pruning for fruit production in more detail: HERE
  • Cherry pruning for fruit production in more detail: HERE
  • Peach pruning for fruit production in more detail: HERE
  • Plum pruning for fruit production in more detail: HERE

*the collar on a tree refers to that little folded bark ring right at the beginning of a branch. It helps the tree heal over with callous tissue after being cut. HERE is a link with photos showing this.

If you never prune your fruit trees, this may cause:

  • delayed fruit production
  • more susceptibility to fungal diseases
  • fruit to ripen only on the outer canopy

Shapes to consider:

  • Open center/vase: common for prunus species, or full size and semi-dwarf apples and pears. Just like it sounds, this method involves sculpting your trees to have 3-4 'leaders', shaped like a vase or a bit like an upside down Christmas tree. This can also help diffuse the height on high-vigor trees, by encouraging the tree to spread it's vegetative growth out rather than up.
  • Scaffold with a central leader: common for apples and pears, this method is all about creating scaffold branches about 2 feet apart up the central trunk. The first scaffold is typically 2/3' off the ground, depending on the orchardist. Each scaffold has 3-4 scaffold branches radiating evenly, horizontally outward.
  • Espalier: this creates a sort of two dimensional tree, grown on a support of some sort (eg. fence, wire trellis, building wall). Be sure to use spur bearing varieties!