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Mike McGrath

How and When to Prune Fruit Trees


If you have fruit trees in your yard or orchard, the topic of pruning comes up often. Common questions are: Should you prune? When to prune fruit trees? How to you prune fruit trees? First, you don't have to prune your fruit trees. They will continue growing and producing fruit without pruning. However, if you want to produce bigger, better-quality fruits or if you want to control the growth and shape of the tree, then pruning is recommended. The how to trim a fruit tree tips below will take some of the mystery out of fruit tree pruning.

Pruning Fruit Trees

Pruning fruit trees has many benefits including:

  • Removing dead and diseased branches can reduce disease and pest infestation on the tree.
  • Depending on the timing, pruning can stimulate growth of a tree or make a large tree more compact.
  • Pruning can result in larger, better-tasting fruits.

The pruning tips that follow are for the most common fruit trees grown in the United States—stone fruits such as peaches, cherries and plums, and pome fruits, such as apples and pears.

Why Is Fruit Tree Pruning Important?

Fruit trees will grow and produce fruits regardless of pruning. However, the tree growth and fruit production on a pruned tree will be different than on one that isn't pruned. If not pruned, a young tree will grow lots of branches and produce fruits. However, the branches will be thinner and the fruits smaller. That's because all of the tree's energy is going into feeding lots of branches and fruits. If pruned, the tree will direct all of its energy to less branches and fruits. This results in thicker, sturdier branches and larger, better-tasting fruits. Follow these tips on how and when to prune fruit trees.

When to Prune Fruit Trees

Fruit trees can be pruned in late winter or spring. Each season has its pros and cons. The best season is also dependent on the age, or stage of development, of your fruit tree. Pruning in the summer can stress the tree; and pruning in the fall is not recommended, as the tree is preparing for dormancy. If, at any time of the year, you spot dead, diseased or broken branches in your fruit trees, go ahead and prune them from the tree.

Pruning Fruit Trees in the Winter

Many fruit tree growers prefer pruning fruit trees in late winter, before the fruit trees emerge from dormancy. Pruning at this time offers many advantages, including:

  • Without foliage and blossoms, it's easier to see the buds and branches on the tree.
  • The wounds have a chance to dry and heal, and insect damage at the wound sites are less likely.
  • Pruning before the trees break dormancy encourages vigorous growth. All of the tree's energy goes into the remaining branches.
  • It's a good time to prune young trees.

Pruning Fruit Trees in the Spring

Some gardeners choose to prune in the spring after the tree is developing foliage and blossoms. This offers some advantages:

  • If you love the ornamental quality of the blossoms, you can enjoy them in abundance before pruning the tree.
  • It's easy to identify the dead branches.
  • It's a good time to prune a large tree that you want to make more compact. You'll see less vigorous growth after pruning in the spring because some of the tree's energy has already been used to develop foliage and blossoms.

How to Prune Fruit Trees

Follow our step-by-step guide on how to prune fruit trees below!

Step 1: Gather your supplies. Pruners, such as the Essential Stainless Steel Pruners, are a must-have for branches less than 1 inch in diameter. A thumb pruner is handy for smaller branches. If you have larger branches, you may also need lopping shears or a saw. To reduce the spread of disease, disinfect equipment between trees. Gardening gloves, such as the Wellbuilt ™ Gauntlet Gloves, can protect your hands during pruning.

Step 2: Remove dead, diseased or broken branches.

Step 3: Remove suckers and waterspouts (straight, vertical sprouts growing from the branches). Make the cut so it is at an angle, flush with the branch.

Step 4: Remove branches that grow downward, toward the center of the tree, or cross another branch. The cuts should be flush with the branch.

Step 5: Prune back about 25% of last year's growth on the branches. This encourages the branches to grow thicker and stronger. These cuts should be about 1/4-inch above a bud and at a 45 degree angle.

Step 6: Remove the branches and debris. Do not compost any branches that showed signs of disease.

Mike McGrath

Expert Advice

Question. I am confused about my fruit trees. The past two years I've pruned my apple,peach,pear and plum trees right after the dead of winter. But we only seem to have had one or two days OF "dead winter" this season, and I'm concerned that the trees might not go fully dormant. Is that concern warranted? And when exactly should we be pruning? I'm concerned about getting the timing right—or at least 'not horribly wrong'.
    ---John; just south of Fredericksburg, VA
Answer. Well, I've been thinking about the same thing, John—not about dormancy, but about timing. I think I've been doing the right things at the right time of year to keep my wife's peach trees as healthy and productive as possible, but I just never feel certain. And I suspect that many fruit tree growers share the same agita.

And this IS the time of year to sort these kinds of issues out, so I called one of our most frequent guests and sources, Dr. Lee Reich, author of "Landscaping with Fruits" (Storey Publishing) as well as "The Pruning Book" and a new tome titled "Growing Fruit Naturally" that's due out in March (both published by The Taunton Press). First, Lee says not to worry about dormancy. The key triggers for plants to go dormant for the winter are things like lessening hours of daylight and cooler nights; they don't need to be below freezing for weeks at a time to get a good winter's rest.

And your timing seems close to perfect. Lee says the ideal time to prune fruit trees is "after the coldest part of winter is over, but before bloom begins, which is typically early to mid-February." And if you're going to err, Lee feels it's safer to prune a little bit later rather than earlier—especially with peaches. When my trees were in their second year, I called Lee to say that I was completely taken by the beauty of the flowers, which I felt put apple blossoms to shame (he agreed), and I asked him if the trees would be harmed by my waiting to prune them until after the big show was over (so I could enjoy every peach blossom).

He said that he saw no problem with letting the trees flower first, and in our recent talk actually moved it up into the 'good idea' category. "Peach trees can often suffer a little winter injury", he notes, "and letting them flower clearly shows you which branches have been winter killed. Plus," he adds, "pruning wounds heal fastest when the tree is just beginning to grow for the season, and that fast healing helps limit problems from pathogens trying to take hold in the cut areas."

Just for peaches, I asked? "No; any tree can be pruned while it's in flower and you'll get those same benefits," he replied. But he quickly added that "peaches DO require the heaviest pruning of any fruit crop. You need to make thinning cuts and heading cuts—to keep the center of the tree open and to stimulate new growth for the following year. And in general you need to cut more than you probably think you should."

I agreed, and explained that while I thought I was pruning pretty aggressively every season, some of my trees were clearly still way too lush and full when they leafed out. "You need to prune by the cat tossing method", he replied.

Huh?

"You need to prune so that, when you're done, you could take a cat and easily toss it through the openings between the remaining branches."

I asked if he had a 'tree cat' he used for this purpose. "No comment," he answered quickly, then added, "if the image disturbs you, imagine pruning so that a large bird can fly through the remaining branches easily." I told him I kind of liked the image of the flying cat. "People tend to remember the advice more with that one," he noted.

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