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Useful Tips for Pruning Fruit Trees

February 12, 2018

Written by Dave G.

As winter moves hesitantly into spring, and the worst weather has passed in your area, its time to turn your thoughts to preparing the garden for another season. If you are lucky enough to have a garden with room for some fruit trees, then this is also the time to prune them. There is no one ‘right’ date for pruning them, and some are pruned, at least in part, in summer. But late winter is an excellent time for many, so let’s take a look at some guiding principles to help you prune more effectively and get the most out of your trees. Many new gardeners plant fruit trees enthusiastically, and then after a few years see they have tangled, leggy trees, with at best a crop of a few undersized fruits. The first thing to realize is that fruit trees need pruning at least once a year and may need a second pruning in summer too. Let’s start with the all-important winter pruning – because that one is the key to success.

The basic principle to keep in mind is that fruit trees produce their best fruit on branches that are 2 to 5 years old. If you over-prune, you will have too much young wood, and if you don’t prune, any fruit will just be at the base of long, spreading branches. Many growers try to develop what are called ‘fruiting spurs’. These are stubby side-growths that carry clusters of flowers, instead of shooting out as long, leafy branches. Regular pruning encourages spur development.

Although special methods are often given for specific types of trees – this way for apples, that way for peaches – in the home garden you can avoid much of that and prune your trees the same basic way. Here is a simple 3-step process that works for any kind of deciduous fruit tree and will set you up for more detailed pruning in the future, if you choose to go in that direction.

Step One – Clean Out Unwanted Branches

To begin, look for branches that are dead, broken or showing signs of disease. Dead branches will have peeling bark, and if you scrape the stem it will be brown, not green or white, underneath. Maybe a storm or strong wind has snapped a branch – remove it back to a healthy one. A branch might be showing orange spots on it, or some kind of fungal growth. Remove it back to a healthy branch. With apples and pears, that can suffer from a disease called ‘fireblight’, remove 8 to 12 inches of healthy wood when you remove any dying branches. This makes sure all the infection is gone.

Next, remove any stems coming from ground level, or sprouting out of the trunk. Depending on how your tree was produced, these could be from the rootstock, and not the variety you are actually trying to grow. If you have long, straight stems shooting straight up from the main branches, these ‘water-shoots’ should be removed as well, unless you need one to replace a damaged branch. Production of water-shoots is often a sign of pruning too aggressively the year before. Regular annual pruning is much better than a big cut-back every 3 or 4 years.

All your cuts should be almost flush with the branches – just leave the small swollen area where the stem meets the main branch – don’t leave a stub, and don’t trim flush with the branch either.

Step 2 – Thin Out the Crown

To develop flowers, and especially to ripen fruit successfully, you need sunlight inside the tree. A dense, bushy tree will not bear well, and what ever crop it does carry won’t ripen well. Fruit trees should have open crowns, so that the light penetrates inside it. There are two main structures used for fruit trees. You can train with a central stem and radiating side branches, or you can train like a vase, with a circle of branches spreading outwards to leave an open center. Decide which you want to follow – and stick to it. Remove any branches that are not creating this pattern, so that both the main and secondary branches are well-spaced. Each branch should have 6 to 12 inches of air-space around it. When you see two branches coming from the same point, remove one. Usually the weakest one, or the one which is more horizontal (it could snap under the weight of fruit) or more vertical (it will not flower well, and it will make your tree too tall). The ideal branch is at the same angle as the hands of a clock when it reads 2 o’clock.

Step 2 – Shorten Back the Remaining Branches

To encourage the spurs we talked about earlier, remove 20 to 30% of the length of all the branches that grew the previous year. These will be the ones that are smooth, with shiny bark and no side-shoots. Trace back from the tip until you find a slightly raised ring, and the bark suddenly becomes thicker and more ridged. That is where last year’s growth developed from the previous year’s bud. The new branch could be just a few inches long, or it could be several feet long. In either case, remove between ¼ and ⅓ of its length. This will encourage the branch to thicken, and send energy and hormones to the side shoots, turning them more quickly into fruiting spurs.

Some General Tips on Pruning Fruit Trees

Comments 4 comments

  1. April 19, 2019 by angus stark

    when can I prune my lemon tree It is 4metres high @ 6metres wide @ 0ver 60years old.
    my mulberry tree is 6metres high @ 8metres wide. my fugue tree is 5 high and 6 metres wide.

    1. April 19, 2019 by Dave G

      Citrus are best pruned in late winter, before new growth begins – that sounds like a big job, with such a large tree. Mulberry should be pruned before they leaf out, but really can be pruned just about anytime, and I don’t know what a ‘fugue’ tree is, sorry.

  2. July 23, 2020 by Maxine Sumrow

    I have 2 , two year old Meyer lemon trees, both of which were munched down to the main trunk leaving it bear and devoid of any leaves, this happened in Feb or March.
    I out fencing around them and now they both have LOTS of growth coming up from base but nothing really from the main trunk which is brown and dead looking….how do I get it to leave this bushy on the ground stage to more of a tree shape I started with? Do I prune,if so how or do I just let these green stalks and shoots get bigger around. Thanks for your help.

    1. July 24, 2020 by Dave G

      I can’t be sure without seeing the trees, but it sounds to me like this is growth from the rootstock, not the Meyer lemon. Citrus are grafted onto roots of several different plants, usually sour orange. Are these branches very thorny? If they are it is definitely the rootstock. if the upper part is dead, then I am afraid this is the end of your trees, as that upper part WAS the lemon tree. Dig them up and start again – sorry.