15 Fruit-Tree Pruning Tips

Help your orchard produce an ample fruit harvest year after year with these tips for pruning maintenance.

by Jessica Walliser
PHOTO: Jessica Walliser

Pruning is as much art as it is science—and never more so than it is in the orchard. Proper fruit-tree pruning is a deciding factor in both fruit production and tree health. While taking a hands-on pruning course from an experienced orchardist is always your best bet, here are some tips for successful fruit tree pruning.

  1. Fruit tree pruning should take place in late winter or early spring, when the tree is dormant and you can see the framework of the branches.
  2. Summer pruning is only necessary when removing dead or diseased branches or to remove suckers from the base of the tree.
  3. Avoid pruning in wet weather, as it promotes fungal diseases.
  4. Use clean, sharp equipment. Between each tree, sterilize all saws, pruners and lopper blades with a 10-percent bleach solution or a disinfectant spray.
  5. Remember your main pruning goal: To create a good, open structure in which all developing fruit receive ample sunlight and good air circulation and have enough room to grow and ripen unimpeded.
  6. If you’re pruning central-leader style, the tree will be shaped much like a Christmas tree, with a single leader branch at the top and its widest branches at the bottom. The branches form a layered scaffold along the trunk. This style of pruning is suitable for apples and pears, but it can be used on almost any fruit type. Keep in mind, though, that it also results in the tallest trees.
  7. If you’re pruning open-center style (open vase), the tree will have an open center and be shaped more like a single, big bowl. This traditional shape has no central leader branch and is most suitable for apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches, pears and plums. All branches that are growing toward the center of the tree are pruned out to keep its open shape. There is only one layer of scaffold branches that make the bowl.
  8. If your pruning to a modified open-center style (modified open vase), the tree will have branches that are open and widely spaced, and the tree shape will be far more rounded than when pruning to a central-leader style. This style differs from open-center style in that it has several layers of branches (like bowls nestled inside of each other with the largest bowl at the bottom). This style is best for apple, apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach, pear, plum, pluot and others.
  9. Most of the shaping should take place in the first three years of the tree’s growth. After that, the shape is maintained only with a light annual pruning.
  10. As a general rule, never remove more than one quarter of the total branches at any one time.
  11. When pruning off a branch, be sure to cut back to the collar. This encourages proper healing. Do not cut flush with the tree trunk, or leave a stump.
  12. The maximum height for most fruit trees should be 12 feet tall. Any taller than that will make the tree difficult to harvest and manage.
  13. Remove any branches that are low to the ground. This will make mowing around the tree a lot easier.
  14. Remove crossed branches, keeping the stronger-looking branch intact.
  15. Unlike apples, pears, plums and cherries, which can produce fruit on any wood older than a year, peaches and nectarines only produce fruit on the previous year’s growth. If you prune all the new growth off these trees in the late winter, no fruit will be produced. To tell productive wood from non-productive wood, look for the swollen buds and shiny growth. These are the branches that will produce fruit. Don’t prune them off.

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