Pruning a cherry tree


Proper pruning will get a tree off to a good start and keep it safe and healthy through its life.

There are several reasons to prune a tree:

  • Structure – make sure a young tree develops a strong, balanced structure
  • Sight lines -remove branches that would impede roads, signs or sidewalks
  • Safety – keep branches from growing into buildings or power lines
  • Health – remove dead, cracked or diseased branches before they fall

Let’s dig a little deeper to learn more about each of these reasons for tree pruning:

Structure: Pruning a young tree to encourage the right structure can eliminate many problems later on.

Trees of most species are strongest if they have a strong central leader—one stem that leads straight up through the center, with other branches spaced more or less evenly around it.

Good nurseries prune saplings properly, so when you buy a young tree, check for that strong central stem.

Bear in mind, though, that each kind of tree has a characteristic form, which may be very different between species. This form may not be as apparent in a young tree as it will be later on. Before you buy a tree, research the species you’re considering so you know what shape and size to expect and how it should be pruned.

Clearance: As the tree grows, it may become necessary to remove some side branches to keep a sidewalk, sign or driveway clear, or to prevent branches from coming into contact with buildings or power lines.

It’s best to anticipate problems and prune out these branches when they’re small enough to remove easily and safely. Once a tree is large enough that pruning would require a ladder, your wisest move is to call in a professional. Pruning without the proper knowledge and training can not only lead to accidents, but do long-term damage to a tree, causing it to decline or die.

Certified arborists are trained not only in safety but in tree care. They know how each kind of tree needs to be pruned to preserve its characteristic form.

Never top a tree — that is, cutting off the entire top of the tree, including the central leader, to keep the tree short. Topping makes trees ugly, stressed and potentially unstable. If a tree is growing under a power line or in another situation for which it’s too tall, remove it and plant another kind of tree or shrub that will naturally stay shorter.

Eliminating hazards: As a tree grows overtime, it becomes more beautiful, casts more shade and adds more to the value of the property. But it also becomes larger and heavier. Over time, some branches may crack in high winds, become infected with disease or start to rot. Rather than waiting for them to fall and cause damage, have a professional arborist check large trees regularly.

A professional can remove problem branches before they become unstable, as well as checking the tree’s overall health.

Each species has a different natural lifespan; some trees naturally begin to decay in just a few decades, and others may live for hundreds of years. A trained professional will know what hazards and stresses to look for in each species. Regular professional pruning can often extend the life of a tree so you can enjoy its beauty safely for many years to come.

Today, I am going to write about one of my favorite flowering trees.

This plant has bright white Spring flowers, stays a nice compact size that fits almost any landscape. It also has an interesting bark color.

It is hardy in zones 4-8 so you can grow it almost everywhere in the US. Sorry Northern Minnesota and southern Florida, your left out of this one.

No, it’s not a crabapple. It’s not a redbud. It’s also not even any of the dogwoods.

The blooms of our mystery tree. photo credit: douneika Prunus cerasus – Ciliegio Visciola via photopin (license)

Give up?

It’s a North Star sour cherry.

North Star Cherry

The North Star cherry or Prunus cerasus ‘North Star’ if your speak Latin.

It’s best trait is one I have not mentioned yet, it’s edible fruit!

North Star Cherry tree with fruit ready to pick.

Hardy Cherry Tree

This is a very cold hardy variety of sour cherry that only grows to about 12 feet tall and wide. This is very good sized small fruit tree that fit into most yards that have a sunny spot for them. It is self pollinating, so no other tree is needed to pollinate it.

It is not a sweet cherry, which tend to be much harder to grow in my Zone 5 area of near Chicago. It also tolerates a wider variety of soil types than Sweet cherries (Prunus avium).

It’s native to Europe and parts of Asia but is not invasive. It is closely related to the sweet cherry, but it’s fruit is more acidic. It also has more nutritional benefits than sweet cherry.

I never sprayed my North Star Cherry for any insects or diseases. It did get a little bit on black knot on it’s rootstock one year, but it grew out of it and needed no action on my part. Birds will eat the fruit but once mine started producing, the birds didn’t even make a dent in the amount of fruit I got off of it. Besides, I don’t mind sharing. If you want all the fruit, this tree stays small enough that you can net it pretty easily and keep the birds away from it.

Sour cherries are also called “Pie” cherries as that are what they are most commonly used for. The best pies I have ever eaten was one my wife Jenny made from these and I have eaten a lot of pie! They are also very good in other desserts.

Doesn’t that look good? It was!

Fresh Eating

But don’t let the “Pie” part fool you, you can eat these fresh if you like a tart flavor and don’t mind spitting out the pit.

My favorite use (besides pies) was to dry them using my food dehydrator and eat them as a snack.

I did try both sweetened (by using soaking in sugar water) and unsweetened and actually found the unsweetened ones were plenty sweet.

They taste a bit between a dried cranberry and a dried sweet cherry.

You do need to pit North star cherries before you can use them in desserts.

Having Fruit trees, especially ones you don’t have to spray nasty chemical on, can be fun family entertainment.
If you are interested in planting a North Star Cherry, you can find them right now at some Big Box stores (I actually saw them at my local Walmart) or you can buy them bareroot from a nursery such as Stark Brothers.

My Favorite part of having fruit trees is the memories you can make. Here are three dorks (well four if you count the one taking the photo) picking cherries from another time.

Cherry Tree Pruning: How And When To Trim A Cherry Tree

All fruiting trees need to be pruned and cherry trees are no exception. Whether sweet, sour or weeping, knowing when to prune a cherry tree and the correct method for cutting back cherries is a valuable tool. So if you want a cherry tree that will provide maximum fruit production, ease of harvest and care and is aesthetically pleasing in appearance, then you need to prune cherries. The question is what is the proper method for cherry tree pruning? Let’s talk cherry tree pruning care.

Why Trim a Cherry Tree?

Pruning cherries, or any fruit tree for that matter, is of paramount importance. The primary reason for trimming cherry trees is to ensure the most optimal access to sunlight. Cherry tree pruning allows for aeration, allowing light channels to penetrate the tree, thus better fruit set, ease of harvest and the ability to battle or thwart disease.

So in essence, when you trim a cherry tree back, it will be allowed to develop a proper form, yielding higher quality fruit earlier in its life and remain healthier overall. Trees that have been improperly pruned or trained tend to have upright branch angles which may lead to limb damage under heavy fruit production.

When to Prune a Cherry Tree

The rule of thumb when pruning fruit trees is to do so when the tree is dormant during the winter. Cutting back sweet cherries is an exception to this rule. Sweet cherries are more susceptible to fungal and bacterial diseases, especially on recently cut limbs, so it is best to prune them in the late summer. Keep in mind that summer pruning reduces the tree’s energy for fruit production as well as its growth, so this should be minimal using only thinning cuts. Thinning cuts are those which remove an entire shoot, branch or limb up to the point of its origin and do an excellent job of opening up the canopy.

Dormant pruning is a more aggressive pruning. When a large portion of the tree is removed during the dormant season, the energy reserves of the tree remain unchanged. The timing of dormant season pruning is critical and should begin as late in the winter as feasible to avoid injuring the tree. Sour and weeping fruit trees may be pruned at this time once the risk of winter frost has passed.

Early spring is also prime time for pruning young cherry trees, shaping and training the young tree before it blossoms. Pruning should begin as buds emerge, but wait until all chance of extreme cold temperatures have passed to avoid possible cold injury, as younger trees are more susceptible to this. Mature cherries can be pruned in early spring too, or after they bear fruit.

How to Prune a Cherry Tree

The tools needed to trim a cherry tree back include: a hand pruner, long handled lopping shears and a pruning saw. Bypass pruners are better than anvil; they can get a closer pruning job done than anvil pruners. The number one task in cherry tree pruning care, actually prior to pruning any bearing tree, is to sterilize your pruning tools. This is to prevent the potential spread of disease from other plants to the cherry. You can wipe the blades down with rubbing alcohol and a rag or mix a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water and then rinse with clean water and dry.

How to Prune Cherry Trees When Young

Young cherry trees should be pruned into an open vase-like shape to allow for light and air penetration which increases the number of blooms, hence an abundant fruit set.

First, cut the suckers off the trunk of the tree and any shoots from limbs that are pointing towards the trunk of the tree as well as any weak branches. All of these are rather pointless shoots that strive to take nutrients from the areas of the tree you want them to go. Cutting them also serves to increase air circulation. Cut the sucker right outside the branch collar, the raised area where the stem meets the trunk. Also, cut any obviously dead, diseased or broken branches.

Head the tree in fall or winter, an exception to the above rule. A heading cut is the removal of part of a shoot, branch or limb, up to one-third to ½ its length. If you head in the spring, you will be lopping off developed buds, potential fruit. Heading means cutting off the top of the leader, the central trunk to encourage growth of the lateral branches. This is done within the first year or two to control the tree’s shape. Be sure the sapling is well over 30 inches tall before heading it. Make a 45-degree angle cut on the leader, leaving the tree 24-36 inches tall.

In the subsequent year, begin creating a scaffold whorl, a set of 4 lateral branches extending out from the tree which provides a solid stricter. Choose four sturdy, evenly spaced branches to keep and prune out the others. Opt for limbs that are at a 45- to 60-degree angle to the leader and at least 8 inches apart vertically from the lowest branch about 18 inches above the ground. Cut those four branches back to 24 inches with ¼-inch angled cuts above the buds. This is where new growth will emerge. Continue to make clean cut flush against the leader to remove the remaining branches.

The following year, create a second scaffold whorl. The tree will be taller now, so select another set of four branches to keep about two feet higher than the first set. Choose branches that don’t fall over the older primary limbs. Repeat as above to create a second scaffold.

Pruning Mature Cherries

Once the tree is three years old, it’s time to promote outward growth by pruning out new vertical limbs. At this point you will need loppers or pruning saws, not shears. Again, clean the tools prior to use. Also, prune out any dead or diseased limbs and dead fruit. Cut back any suckers at the base of the tree. Remove any crossed branches.

Cherries are prone to disease, so be sure to clean up all the discarded remnants. Also, cover all cuts with a tree sealant to fend off disease.

In summary, when you prune cherries, remember your goal. You are trying to create a tree that is well balanced, open and manageable, as well as aesthetically pleasing. There is no real science for pruning fruit trees. Some of it is trial and error. Look at the tree carefully and try to envision it as it will look when leafed out in the summer and eliminate any shoots that seem too closely spaced.

Pruning Cherry Trees

After 4 years of experimenting and moving things around and some flops and some successes, we finally had our long-term garden plan in place and the decision of where to plant the sour cherry trees was made. I researched and picked out the varieties that best fit our needs and that fall, he drove to a nursery over an hour away to buy the trees. A few days later our boys helped me plant them. And we were done! We just needed to be patient and wait for the annual battle with the birds over the cherries. That’s what I pretended to believe, anyway, because the idea of pruning a tree was completely intimidating to me. A tree isn’t like a plant, which will usually recover in a short time or, worst case, leaves you out only a few dollars if it doesn’t recover. Trees are expensive and slow-growing so mistakes are a more serious matter.

Knowing pruning was inevitable if we were going to look forward to many years of healthy trees, I began my research. The amount of information available was overwhelming and the variety of opinions only added to the confusion. I quickly passed the pruners on to my husband and asked him to do the deed.

Pruning the cherry trees is not a one-time job. They need much attention the first few years of their lives to ensure they grow in a way that gives the proper structure for strength, air flow, and light penetration when they are mature, so I have since sat down and and invested more time in research. I made a few discoveries in the process, things that have made me feel confident that when the time comes, I will be able to make those cuts. I’ve made a short list summarizing the things I felt were the most important points to prevent me from over-thinking the whole process when it is time to prune.

Where to learn about pruning: I found that pruning instructions offered through university extension programs are typically the most straightforward, without obvious personal opinions that can make a novice doubt their ability to ever be informed enough to complete the task. It allowed me to focus better on just the basics.Many of them also use simple illustrations which make “seeing” the things we’re supposed to cut with pruning shears and the direction we should be cutting easier.Probably my favorite illustration can be found by following this link and scrolling to page 2. The simple silhouette and many of the tree pruning features you read about all appearing on one tree make it a great reference for quick learning.

When to prune: At the time of planting, all dead or diseased wood should be removed. One of the things that I found to be most contested, though, is when you should do major pruning of them. There are the winter pruners and the summer pruners. Summer pruners believe they have a better chance of avoiding disease. They also encourage slower growth of the tree, which is helpful for mature trees. The winter pruners encourage more rapid growth as they are not interfering with the tree during the time it is actively growing. Waiting until late winter, right before it emerges from dormancy should help with avoiding disease. I also found some combination pruners! They do the major pruning in the winter but prune away things like water spouts (thin, leggy vertical growing shoots) in the summer.

Knowing where to begin: Cherry trees benefit most from central leader training. This means one main trunk is chosen and 3-5 lateral branches are selected as the scaffold branches. These should be as evenly space around the tree as possible, not directly across or above/beneath one another, and should have 18 to 24 inches of vertical space between them to allow good airflow and light penetration as the tree grows. The crotch angle (the point where the branch meets the trunk) should be at around a 60 degree angle. Since cherry tree branches tend to grow vertically you may need to put metal spreaders in the branch crotches for a few years to train them to this angle. We had trouble getting these to stay in place and opted to tie the branches, close to the crotch, to stakes in the ground.

If you are starting with a whip, a young tree that looks like a stick with few or no branches, it will be cut back 1/4 inch above a bud that is 30-36 inches from the ground. Starting with a whip allows you be more selective about which branches to choose as your scaffolds as they begin growing from the trunk; However, since it is a very young tree, you have a longer wait until that first cherry pie. When purchasing older trees, keeping the idea of scaffold branches in mind will assist you with choosing the tree with branches that will be easiest to train.

How to cut: When you decide a branch needs to go, the whole thing should go. Do not leave long stubs. Leaving stubs causes slower healing times because the healing hormones that travel to the cut from the branch collar (the part where the branch and the trunk connect and are actually sharing wood) have to travel farther to the wound. And often, the stub will just die anyway. Cut it to 1/2 to 1 1/2 inch from the trunk, but not into the branch collar.
Similarly, if you are heading back branches, or shortening them, cut at about 1/4 inch above a bud. Hormones that heal pruning wounds also reside in the buds so, again, you don’t want them to have far to travel.

Cuts should be made at an angle to prevent water from sitting on the open wound. You want to angle the cuts so that new growth will emerge growing in the right direction. You don’t want to encourage it to grow toward the center of the tree.

What tools to use: Fiskars offers a large variety of tools for your pruning needs. Hand pruners can be used on branches up to 1/2 inch in diameter. Loppers can be used on branches up to 1 1/2 inch in diameter. Pruning saws can be used on branches over 1 inch in diameter. Pole pruners can be used on mature trees that have branches that are out of reach.

More extensive information about things such as how to determine which types of branches to remove, whether or not wound dressing should be used, etc. should be available through your local extension office, which can be located by following this link.

Pruning Ornamental Trees

Unlike pruning hedges or many fruit trees, pruning ornamental trees—such as Dogwood, Flowering Cherry, Magnolia, Snowbell, or Japanese Maple—involves mostly thinning to enhance natural branching patterns, open up views to trunks, and reduce the overall density. Although the growth habits vary between types of trees, the basic principles of thinning and redirecting apply to most. Some trees need very little, if any, pruning. For the rest that do need pruning, here are the basics to get you started.


Redirect growth energy (not slow or stop it). Reveal beauty (not create it). Improve health (allow greater access to air and light—help it “breathe,” reduce wind and snow breakage).


Winter: any time between total leaf fall and the breaking open of the first spring buds. Good for major clean-out and thinning. Fewer bugs to swat or bulbs to trample. Watch for excessive running sap.
Summer: after leaves are full size, through early September. Good to see foliage masses for thinning and layering. Easier to identify dead branches. Generally stimulates growth less than winter pruning.
Flowering trees: ideally soon after flowering, but light thinning will not impact future flowering. Anytime of year: remove dead or problem branches.


Do less than you think you need to. Try not to remove more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the volume of the living crown in any one year (some professionals recommend even less). More may cause oversprouting. Anything dead should be removed, of course.


1. Clean Out: Remove branches which are dead, diseased, broken, crossing (rubbing on each other) or out of character with the rest of the tree.
2. Selectively Thin: Open up light and air circulation. Make the interior more transparent but not stripped clean. Balance the branch density around the tree.
3. Shape and Layer: On more horizontal branching trees: enhance “cloud formations” and spaces between them. On more vertical growers: lightly thin between major branches. Open up views of attractive/unique trunks and branches, such as at major crotches.


Don’t fight your tree’s will to grow to a certain size. Work with it, or replace tree with something smaller.
Safety! Eye protection from branches.
Sharp tools are better for the trees, less stress on your hands.
Work from inside out, bottom to top. Start by removing small inside branches. Work up to larger if necessary. You can shake or trace the branch before cutting to anticipate the effect of its removal.
Leave minimal length of dead end stubs.
Work around the plant at least twice (if possible). You will notice different details each time.

Planting a Japanese Cherry tree

It is recommended to plant your Japanese cherry tree in fall, before the first frost spells, to give it time to develop roots.

If you plant your Japanese cherry tree in winter, proceed only if it doesn’t freeze.

Just like most plants that have been purchased in pots or containers, it’s possible to wait for spring and even summer to transplant your Japanese cherry tree, if you avoid hot spells.

If this is the case, it will be necessary to water regularly over the first year after planting.

  • Japanese cherry trees like full sun but not scorching locations.
  • They also require well drained soil.

Potted Japanese cherry tree

It is perfectly possible to grow a Japanese cherry tree in a pot, on a terrace or on a large balcony.

  • Provide a good-sized pot.
  • Double-check that the bottom of the pot has a hole drilled in to avoid stagnating water.
  • Pour a bed of gravel or clay beads at the bottom of the pot.
  • Plant your Japanese cherry tree in tree and shrub soil mix.
  • Water as soon as the substrate surface is dry.

Pruning a Japanese cherry tree

Like most Prunus trees, the only pruning that is really critical is the removing of dead wood.

Don’t prune before the blooming, but wait for the blooming to end before pruning, if needed, to reduce tree size or balance the branches.

Japanese cherry trees, like all the Prunus trees, are fragile and vulnerable to diseases such as fungus. The less they are pruned, the less they are infected by such diseases.

Follow these pruning tips

  • Disinfect your pruning tools with 90-proof alcohol or any other antiseptic before pruning.
  • Remember to disinfect between each cut.
  • Clot the wounds with pruning paste.

Japanese cherry tree varieties

The most common varieties are the great ‘Kanzan’ cherry tree, which has double flower blooms in spring that are most spectacular.

Three more varieties are the ‘Kiku Shidare Sakura’, ‘Hokusai’ and ‘Accolade’. These last ones are smaller than the ‘Kanzan’, and grow to be 20 to 26 feet (6 to 8 meters) tall, and also cover themselves with beautiful spring flowers.

Lastly, if a small Prunus tree for a smaller garden is what you are looking for, check out the ‘Amanogawa’ variety.

  • Did you know…? Ornamental cherry trees or Japanese cherry trees are part of same family as traditional cherry-bearing cherry trees.

All the Japanese cherry tree varieties are very hardy to the cold and to freezing, since they hold to temperatures as low as 5° to -4°F (-15 to -20°C).

Learn more about Japanese cherry tree

The Japanese cherry tree, also called ornamental cherry tree, boasts spectacular blooming at the end of winter or at the very beginning of spring.

Absolutely magnificent, it brightens our first spring days with abundant flowers in hues that range from white to pink.

This time span, albeit quite short, will turn your garden in to a burst of color that signals that warmer weather is just about to come back.

It belongs to the large Prunus family, just like the cherry tree incidentally, and is native to Asia.

The time of blooming depends on the variety, which is why some bloom in February, some in March, and the latest varieties bloom at the beginning of April.

Smart tip about the Japanese cherry tree

Avoid places that are too exposed to wind so that the fragile blooms aren’t swept away too soon!

Japanese cherry trees also don’t cope well in spots that are too exposed to the sun and would be scorching hot in summer.

Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Japanese cherry tree branches by Hans Braxmeier under license
Single flower clump by Nhut Tran Minh under license

Pruning a Young Japanese Flowering Cherry Kwanzan Tree

Thank you for providing photographs.
I would not be in a rush to prune a lot of the branches on your Kwanzan cherry because the tree is still fairly immature and you have already pruned quite a bit. However, it was probably a good idea to remove the co-dominant trunk to encourage a strong leader. You will want to maintain that strong leader for about 2/3 of the tree’s height at maturity.
Of course, always prune off any crossing or rubbing branches and any water sprouts. This should be done in late winter or early spring.
This is a decurrent tree, meaning that it has a more oval shape rather than an upright or pyramidal shape that has a strong central leader up to the top of the tree. While your tree is not technically a shade tree, it doesn’t bear fruit, so I am attaching some information on proper pruning of shade trees, which should answer your questions.

I noticed in your second photograph it appears there are several small branches that have been removed, and it looks like small stubs are remaining. These should always be pruned off so the tree will have the ability to heal over those areas, thereby preventing insects or disease from invading the tree. (One is on the far left branch and the other is on the right side of the picture.)
Some information on proper pruning techniques:

Good luck!

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