Which Pruning Style Does Your Fruit Tree Need?

Pruning young fruit trees into the correct shape for their type is an important step for keeping them healthy and productive.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

In my opinion—and I’m sure this opinion is shared by many—every hobby farm needs a small orchard of fruit trees. Even if it’s just a corner of your yard with three or four trees, growing your own apples, pears and plums is a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable pursuit, and once your trees are established, you’ll reap the benefits for years to come.

Getting your trees established in the best way possible can be challenging. In order to be as productive as possible at growing fruit, fruit trees need to be pruned during the early years of their life to promote the growth of a strong frame that will support abundant crops without breaking under their weight. In addition, a properly pruned tree will grow into an ideal shape that will make it easy to harvest the fruit while preventing the lower portions of the tree from being overly shaded.

There are three main pruning styles that we seek to create for fruit trees: open center, central leader and modified leader. Some are better-suited to some types of trees than others, so let’s take a brief look at the three shapes and the fruit trees they are most appropriate for.

Open Center Pruning Style

An open center shape, as its name implies, attempts to produce a tree that emphasizes the growth of scaffold branches that grow outward and upward from a point low on the trunk, leaving the center of the tree open so that sunlight can reach all of the branches.

While the open center shape can be used for apple trees, which are pretty versatile, this type of pruning is primarily used for stone-fruit trees, such as apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches and plums. The open center allows more sunlight and airflow to penetrate the crown of the tree, which helps protect stone-fruit trees from the fungal disease brown rot.

Central Leader Pruning Style

When you think tree, this is probably the shape that you think of—a tree growing a tall, straight trunk with branches radiating outward and upward from this central trunk. It’s a fairly simple shape to develop and maintain compared to the more complex open center style, and it’s a popular choice for apple and pear trees.

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Modified Central Leader Pruning Style

This pruning style creates a dominant central leader accompanied by a few strong scaffold branches growing upward and branching out from the sides of the trunk. In some cases, the central leader might eventually be removed, turning the tree into more of an open-center shape.

Although the modified central leader shape is more commonly used for nut trees, such as walnuts and figs, it also makes a good choice for apple and pear trees, as well as some types of stone-fruit trees.

Choosing the perfect shape for your young fruit tree is an important step, and must be followed by a commitment to execute the appropriate pruning style during the first few years of the tree’s life. With a little research and effort, you’ll be well on your way to establishing a very productive fruit tree.

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