By Richard Ashton
Pruning fruit trees is an art more than a science. There are general rules and methods that need to be observed when it comes down to making a cut, but knowing where to make that cut is an art. Years of pruning will make a person a better pruning artist just by trial and error. A lot of the art is simply standing back and taking a look at the tree and visualizing where the cuts need to be made.
You will be pruning to make a healthy, more productive tree as well as to produce larger fruit. There are many methods of pruning a tree for best health and fruiting, but most fruit trees are pruned to just three tree structures:
Central Leader System. After you plant a young tree, prune the tree back about one-third to account for root disturbance. As the tree grows, let the main trunk grow upward with limbs coming off the main trunk. Limit the branches to the number that produces well for that species. Remember that too many branches will result in smaller fruit.
Prune the branches that come off the main leader so that there is a spacing of at least 8 inches, but no more that 2 feet, between limbs. On very young trees the spacing will be less than 8 inches, but as the tree grows the space will increase. Spacing the branches is where the “art” comes in. You just have to stand back and look at the tree to see where to cut so that the tree has a balanced look.
Crotch angles are important to the central leader system and are discussed below along with pruning because they influence pruning operations.
Open Center System. After you plant a young tree, prune the top back about one-third to help the tree recover from the disturbance of the roots. The nurseries always seem to cut a few roots and the hair roots are mostly destroyed when the trees are barerooted for shipment. When you cut the main leader/trunk, cut it so that the center will remain open. Since this does not happen in one year, you will need to keep cutting the branches back in the center of the tree so that no main trunk develops above where your scaffold branches come off the tree. You will want to select the branches to be saved in a symmetrical pattern. In other words, leave branches as evenly spaced around the tree as possible. Limit the branches to what you think the tree can support and also yield good fruit production. Again, remember, too many branches mean smaller fruit.
Natural. Some fruit species need no training but do need other pruning procedures to maintain a healthy fruitful tree. All fruit trees need to have any dead wood removed on an annual basis. Also, broken limbs need to be pruned off and new spurs need to be developed to replace them.
There are big differences in how you prune different fruit species. Here is how to prune the major fruit species in Texas. The type of pruning system is noted for each species.
Apple — Central leader system. Apples tend to have very narrow crotch angles; the branches come off the tree at an angle that is too upward-growing. These angles need to be increased by spreading the branches. This will cause the tree to have a more spreading look instead of being upright and narrow.
You can use several methods for spreading the branches. Blocks of wood with notches cut in each end will help with spreading. These can be placed in the tree between the main leader and the branches. Wire running from a branch to a tie down on the ground can be used to pull the limbs down to increase the crotch angle. Use padding of some type where the wire is tied around the limb to prevent branch damage. By increasing the crotch angles you will allow more light into the tree for better overall tree health and fruit bearing.
You still need to prune away some of the branches that come off the main leader. Prune so that you have a good spacing between branches. Again, this is where the “art” comes in, and with correct spacing your tree will have a balanced look. Do not leave too many branches as this will result in poor tree health and smaller fruit.
There are spur-type apple trees that have a strong main leader and very short branches. These types of trees produce few branches, so do not remove any limbs. The crotch angles on these trees are usually sufficient without spreading as they are so short.
Apricot — Open center system. Prune young trees to an open center by cutting off the central leader and promoting scaffold-branch growth. You can cut the central leader of a newly purchased young tree about 50 percent of its height. Some people even cut the new tree back to about a foot from the ground to train a tree that can be maintained at a slightly dwarf size. Apricots tend to grow long slender branches. Cut back the branches that have grown out too far to maintain good tree balance. Prune out some of the smaller wood each year to stimulate growth. As apricots bear on 2-year-old fruiting spurs that form on the scaffold branches, you do not want to prune too many of these branches, but you must prune some so that new growth can occur, resulting in new fruiting wood in two years.
Blueberries — Natural. Although blueberries in Texas are normally left to grow as they will, pruning can help. On newly planted blueberry plants cut back the top about one-third to compensate for root damage. When buying plants, it is best to look for good roots rather than big tops. During the first 6 or 7 years, do not prune other than to remove any dead, diseased or crossing wood. After the bush is mature, remove about one-fifth of the limbs at ground level on a yearly basis. This will rejuvenate the bushes for better crops. With the fifth year of mature pruning, you will have a completely rejuvenated bush without sacrificing much production.
Many commercial and ‘pick your own’ operations prune to maintain good shape for easy picking. Keeping the bushes at a good level for picking by removing some of the top on mature trees may be desirable for these operations. But there are mixed opinions on top-pruning.
Cherry — Central leader system. Cherries are vigorous growers and need frequent pruning. They do need some spreading of the limbs as they tend to grow too upright with not enough spreading. Also, spreading the limbs prevents some winter injury. Try to balance the growth of the central leader with the growth of the branches. Each year prune to balance the growth. By cutting back the scaffold branches you will have better shoot growth. The shoots are where the fruiting buds are located, so you want good shoot growth each year.
Be careful when you start spreading the limbs to get better crotch angles. Apply just enough pressure to make the limb spread. Cherry wood is a little more brittle than many other fruit trees and will break if too much pressure is applied.
Citrus — Natural. Citrus trees do not need much pruning, but some is necessary. Semi-annually, prune to remove suckers that grow from the base of the tree. You need to keep removing these suckers or they will take energy from your tree. Many commercial growers also top and hedge mature trees to make for easier picking and maintenance. Hedging means blocking the sides of the trees square with the row like you would any ornamental hedge.
Remove any dead or diseased limbs. Dispose of these removed limbs away from your trees and, if badly diseased, burn the limbs. Citrus diseases can be a real problem. Remove any crossing limbs. Pruning is best done after fruiting and before flowering.
Fig — Natural. Most fig trees are never pruned and produce many figs. But a little pruning can help your fig tree. If you buy a large fig and the roots receive any damage, prune the top back about the same percentage as the roots were damaged. This will help the tree recover from transplanting. As your tree grows, remove any limbs that are growing toward the ground. Also, remove any branches or limbs that are growing too close together.
On mature fig trees you can cut back the tips of the main trunks three to six inches in late winter to produce larger, sweeter figs. Do not try this on young trees as you will restrict their development. Also, remove any dead or diseased wood.
Jujube — Natural. Little or no pruning is needed to maintain a jujube tree. But remove any diseased or dead wood to maintain good tree health. Remove any suckers that come from below ground. Jujubes are nearly always grafted on a wild rootstock so these suckers are detrimental to the tree. Sometimes the suckers will show up 30 or more feet from the tree. Pruning the tree or cutting a root will result in more of these undesirable suckers.
Peach & Nectarine — Open center system. Peaches are one of the most common fruit trees for home growers in Texas. They are also one of the trees that are most commonly incorrectly pruned or not pruned at all by many homeowners. Not pruning will result in a diseased tree that will die within a few years from overproduction of vegetative growth and small fruit.
With peaches and nectarines, heavy pruning in the spring is necessary to get the best crop and have a healthy tree. Peaches bear fruit on year-old wood, so prune for good production. Prune out all hanging branchlets. Hanging means the branch is pointing toward the ground. Prune out any crossing or dead wood. Look at the tree and remember that you want the center open for good light penetration. Because most of the new growth will be in the top of the tree, that is where you will do most of your pruning. Keep the tree at a manageable height. You want the scaffold branches going out and slightly upward. Head-back the scaffold branches each year so they do not get too long.
Pruning out too little wood is the most common mistake in pruning peach trees. If you have trouble determining how much wood to remove in the early spring, wait until the trees are in bloom and prune back where you see too many blooms. You want the fruit no closer than about three inches apart. So prune accordingly. Pruning too much will result in larger fruit so that is really not a problem.
Pear — Central leader system. Pear trees need little pruning but since the branches generally have narrow crotch angles a little spreading of the branches is useful to produce a more spreading tree. When you prune a pear tree, you will see water sprouts (vegetative growth at the cut sites) and the terminal growth increase. Both these things are undesirable. Fireblight is a major problem with a lot of pear varieties and any cuts will increase the chance of blight entering the tree through a cut. Applying a wound dressing to all cuts on a pear tree is necessary to help with healing and fireblight prevention. But you will need to remove any rubbing limbs, water sprouts and damaged or dead wood.
Persimmon — Open center system or Central leader system. Persimmons have been pruned to both these systems with good production. The problem with the open-center system is that when you have a heavy crop, the scaffold limbs tend to break. Though, if you develop strong scaffold branches by training and heading back, you will have a better open-center tree.
The central leader system is probably best for small growers and homeowners. It has the advantage of having a strong framework and being easy to maintain. When planting new trees prune the top back about one-third. If you are going to grow your tree with the central leader system, be sure the central leader is the tallest limb. If another outside limb is taller than the central leader, cut it back below the central leader.
Remove any dead or diseased wood on a yearly basis. In late winter, prune to shape your tree with some heading-back and remove any limbs that are too close together.
Plum and Prune — Open center system. Prune to create an open center on young plum trees. Once you have established the open center with no central leader, you can cut back on your pruning in later years. Prune out small branches, dead and crossing wood annually. Thin limbs throughout the tree to maintain good light penetration. Pruning plums is necessary on an annual basis, but only prune on a limited basis. Plums do not need near as much pruning as peaches.
Pomegranate — Natural with some training. Pomegranates need to be pruned to establish shape when young. Nearly all pomegranates are on their own roots, so any growth from below ground level will be true to variety. Prune to two to three main branches/trunks in most areas of Texas. In Coastal and South Texas, you can grow them as a single trunk tree. Remove any shoots that come from below ground other than the main trunks or trunk.
Pomegranates tend to sucker a lot in the early years and these suckers need to be removed at least twice a year, in late spring and early fall. When the trees get older, top the trees at about 10 feet for easier picking.
Reclaiming Un-pruned Trees. If you have a tree that has never been pruned and you want to establish better orchard practices, start with pruning a little to improve the shape. Do not try to completely reshape the tree in one year. This will result in too many open cuts and could cause the tree to die. Start with a little the first year and complete the shape training in the second or third year.
Tools. Use pruning shears for most pruning jobs. There are several types. Just be sure they make a clean smooth cut and do not just smash or tear the limb off. A fine-tooth tree saw is also necessary for larger limbs. When pruning pears, a wound dressing is necessary, and it is also good to use a wound dressing on apple trees. On any larger limbs measuring more than 1-1/2 inches in diameter also use wound dressing for best healing of the wound.
Time of pruning. Most pruning operations are carried out in late winter. Mid- to late January for South Texas, late January to early February in Central Texas and mid-February in North Texas. Removal of dead or diseased wood can be done at any time.
Richard Ashton is the author of several books on fruit growing, including The Incredible Pomegranate — Plant and Fruit; Jujube — The Chinese Date; Sweet Cherries — For Southern Orchards and Plums of North America. They are all available from Third Millennium Publishing on the internet at www.3mpub.com/ashton.
- Time to Prune Fruit Trees in Texas
- Do you want larger fruit? Prune those trees now
- Fruit Tree Pruning: How And When To Prune Fruit Trees
- When to Prune Fruit Trees
- Fruit Tree Pruning After the First Year
- How to Prune a Fruit Tree After Three Years
- Successful Fruit Tree Pruning
- How and When to Prune Fruit Trees
- OSU Extension Catalog
- The Basics
- Why train fruit trees?
- Why prune fruit and nut trees?
- Basic terminology
- Save the branch collar, and don’t use wound dressings.
- General rules for training
- Manage your fruit trees actively
- General rules for pruning
- Tree training systems
- Fruiting habits
- Pruning tools
- Applying the basics
- When is the best time to prune an apple tree?
- Learn your pruning terms
- Main reasons to prune an apple tree
- Choosing your apple tree shape
- Choose the right pruning tools
- What to cut and what to keep when pruning an apple tree?
- Final tips for the perfect apple tree pruning
- How to prune young apple trees
- How to prune old or neglected apple trees
Time to Prune Fruit Trees in Texas
It’s just about that time to prune your fruit trees, while they’re still dormant. Fruit trees are treated a bit differently than shade trees when it comes to pruning. While we never want to over-prune or over-thin our large shade trees, smaller fruit trees are often heavily pruned each year in order to produce the best yields of fruit. Timing your fruit tree pruning can be a bit tricky, especially with our fluctuating weather here in Dallas. Your goal is always to prune as late as possible, but before any bud break occurs on your tree. Some fruit trees will start blooming by mid-February, so now’s the time you need to start pulling out your pruning gear.
Each variety of fruit will bloom at a different time. The best approach to timing your pruning is to prune the later blooming trees first, followed by the earliest bloomers. That means you’ll start with apples and pecans (although large pecans should be pruned by a professional tree care company). Peach and plum trees will follow, as they bloom the earliest here in Dallas.
Hard pruning of fruit trees should begin the first year they are in the ground. Hard pruning to properly shape the tree continues each winter for the next several years. As trees mature, you’ll perform lighter maintenance pruning. Depending on the type of tree, you’ll either train it using the central leader method, or the open center method.
Apples, pears and plums should be pruned using the central leader method. This means you allow the tree to grow a central main trunk that is tall than all the surrounding branches. The rest of the tree is shaped into a pyramidal form.
Heavier fruiting trees, such as peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds, perform better when pruned using the open center method. By removing the central leader branch, you’ll create more of a vase shape to the tree. This allows more sunlight to reach all of the central branches and reduces branch breakage.
You’ll also need to do some “thinning” and “heading”. When you thin branches, that means you’ll remove them at their base. This allows more light into the interior of the tree. “Heading” involves pruning off the tip of the branch in order to encourage more fruiting lateral branches.
If you have fruit trees and have fallen behind on necessary pruning, or you’re thinking about planting new fruit trees, now’s the time to pick up a fruit tree pruning book to learn the best techniques.
Haven’t planted fruit trees yet? Now’s the perfect time. Local garden centers should have a good stock of fruit trees that are appropriate for our climate and can give you a primer on pruning.
Originally published on D Home blog.
Do you want larger fruit? Prune those trees now
For consistent production of large, well-colored, blemish–free fruit, pruning is an important part of fruit tree culture. Pruning also can make it easier for you to reach and harvest your fruit. February is the month to prune your fruit trees.
For all fruit trees, the first step is to remove all dead and wounded wood. Next, cut out all suckers. Suckers are stems that arise from the roots or below the graft.
Peaches and plums: In peaches and plums there may also be some branches that emerge from the scaffold branches that grow straight into the air with very few modes or side branches. Take them out at their origin as well.
Peaches and plums are generally pruned to an open vase form, much like hybrid tea roses. The open middle allows air and sunlight to penetrate to the fruit borne on the sides. Fruit is borne on the new wood which is colored red. Peaches and plums produce three or four times as much fruit as the tree can support so do not hesitate to remove a considerable number of branches and stems.
The stem of the glass is formed by the trunk. Three or four main branches called scaffolds that arise at about 60 degrees out of the trunk form the vase. For diagrams and more detailed directions, visit www.plantanswers.com.
Branches growing on the main scaffolds that point into the middle of the tree or towards the ground are removed. Most branches that are targeted for removal should be cut at its origin in the scaffold or sub-scaffold branches. Such a cut is called a thinning cut. A hedging cut is one where a portion or stub of a branch remains above its origin.
The new wood that is left should be sturdy enough to hold one or more piece of fruit until maturity. Leave a collection of small stems at the center of the vase to provide leaves that protect the trunk and scaffolds from sun burn.
Apples and pears: Apples and pears do not grow as fast as peaches or plums. They also produce fruit on older wood so do not have to be pruned to stimulate new growth. Prune apples and pears to a central leader or modified central leader shape. Branches emerge from the central leader much like a spiral staircase around a central pole would.
The branches emerging from the central stem are pruned so that the leader is obviously the highest reaching stem.
In peaches and plums, most major cuts are thinning cuts. With apples and pears, hedging cuts are often appropriate. The amount of wood removed from apples and pears should be significantly less than that removed from peaches.
Citrus: Citrus trees are tolerant of pruning, but it is usually unnecessary. Again, remove suckers and dead wood, but the tree does not need to be opened up. To fit tight spaces, citrus trees can be pruned to remove height or width with thinning or hedging cuts.
Figs and pomegranates: Remove a few of the oldest stems each year to encourage yearly production of new stems without removing productive old wood.
Blackberries: It is best if the canes that produced fruit are removed sometime after harvest. If you did not remove them last spring, remove all the old spent stems now so that they do not interfere with your harvesting efforts. They can also be reservoirs of disease.
Before or after you prune your peach, apple, pear, citrus or plum trees, apply dormant oil. The oil is an organic control that suffocates scale insects and other pests that winter in the bark crevices. Watch the weather prediction for two days in a row where temperatures will be 45 degrees or higher. Follow the label instructions closely.
For diagrams and more detailed instructions on pruning, visit www.plantanswers.com.
Calvin R. Finch is a horticulturist and director of special projects with San Antonio Water System.
Fruit Tree Pruning: How And When To Prune Fruit Trees
Timing and method of fruit tree pruning can enhance the amount and quality of your crop. Learning when to prune fruit trees will also create an open scaffold that is strong enough to bear all those beautiful fruits without breaking. Proper pruning methods and timing is the key to bountiful crops and healthy trees. Read on for some tips and techniques on fruit tree pruning.
When to Prune Fruit Trees
Most fruit trees don’t need pruning annually once they have been trained. Initial fruit tree pruning is important to help young trees produce thick stems and open canopies where light and air can enter and promote flowering, as well as reduce fungal and bacterial diseases. The best time for pruning fruit trees is at planting and, in subsequent years, in early spring before buds break and trees are still dormant.
Pruning should be undertaken at planting time where you cut the new stem off 24 to 30 inches from the ground and remove any side shoots. This causes the new tree to grow low branches and balances growth and the root system to keep the plant from getting top heavy during establishment.
You can’t expect much fruiting the first two to three years as the plant develops low branches for better fruiting. This
training for young trees can take many forms, but the most common is central leader training. This type of training gives the tree a strong trunk and laterally branching stems that start about 30 inches from the ground. The scaffold is formed by selecting a scaffold whorl, four to five balanced branches, which will form the base form of the tree.
Fruit Tree Pruning After the First Year
It’s important to know how to prune a fruit tree for the first three years. The goal is to increase scaffold strength, promote fruiting branches and minimize rubbing and crossing. The best time for pruning fruit trees that are newly planted is in the summer, after new growth has begun to sprout from the initial cuts.
After new growth has reached 3 to 4 inches, select the central leader and remove all other branches 4 inches below it. Side branches are spread with toothpicks or similar items to form crotch angles of 45 to 60 degrees from the central leader. This allows maximum light and air and creates strong branches that aren’t prone to splitting and can handle a load of heavy fruit.
After five to six weeks, remove these spreaders.
How to Prune a Fruit Tree After Three Years
The first three years are devoted to managing the scaffold, removing any crossing branches, secondary stems, waterspouts (or sucker growth), downward growth and heading back lateral growth to one-quarter of their complete length. This later step forces side branches.
Additionally, dormant pruning is used on mature trees to keep the lateral branches in the proper shape by cutting them back to at least two-year-old wood that is at close to the same diameter using angle cuts that force water away from the cut end. Dormant pruning in early spring is also the time to remove dead wood and errant growth that is weak and diminishes fruiting.
Once the tree is mature, if proper training took place, pruning is nearly unnecessary except to reduce downward weak branches, waterspouts and remove dead wood. Neglected fruit trees may require drastic rejuvenation pruning, which reinvigorates the scaffold but will minimize fruit load for several years.
It is necessary to know how to prune a fruit tree that has been neglected or the wood will become weak and breakage and splitting occurs. Additionally, trees that are crowded have poor fruit production so canopy management becomes a concern on older plants.
Successful Fruit Tree Pruning
To get a new fruit tree off to the right start, virtually nothing is as important as proper pruning. Follow our pruning guide to avoid mistakes and shape your trees for years of enjoyment ahead.
If left unpruned, fruit trees may struggle in growth, and, if you encounter an unfortunate drought, they may not grow at all. More importantly, unpruned trees take longer to bear fruit! All bare-root Stark Bro’s trees are pruned in the nursery row for proper shaping, and our trees are also pruned right before packing and shipping.
Why we take pruning seriously:
First, a tree needs pruning to help it survive after planting. In digging, a bare-root trees’ roots have been disturbed. The trees have lost many of their tiny feeder roots, which are needed to absorb moisture and nutrients, but the top is still its full size! This imbalance can cause tree growth to be weak and slow.
In addition, cutting the tree back stimulates stronger, more vigorous, growth from the remaining buds. After a single growing season, a pruned tree will be bigger than a matching unpruned tree.
The natural shape of a fruit tree is not always the best for maximum fruit production. It’s best to start the shaping process as early as possible, particularly to balance the top portion with the root system.
These are just a few reasons all eligible Stark Bro’s trees are professionally pruned before they arrive at your door: we want to get you off to the best start possible. Please note: When your Stark Bro’s bare-root trees arrive pre-pruned by our professionals, do not prune them again when you plant. Plan to prune your fruit trees during every dormant season. In Zone 6 and further north, you should wait until late winter. A good reference, such as our Pruning Made Easy book, is handy for addressing questions and guiding you through the pruning process.
Continue Pruning for Success
“The best time to prune is when the knife is sharp,” old-time gardeners say. Well, that’s not exactly true… fruit trees develop better if they’re pruned at the right times, in the right ways. Here’s how:
• Prune trees when they are dormant
Wait until a tree is dormant before pulling out the sheers! This is best for the tree and easiest for you. It’s easier to see where to make your cuts when the leaves have fallen. As mentioned above, pruning should be done in late fall, winter, or early spring. Exact timing will vary by zone, as winter months differ by zone.
• Prune fruit trees to certain shapes
Prune into strong, bearing trees following the chart below. If you keep up with your pruning and shaping each year, you’ll make mostly small, easy-to-heal cuts.
• Help the tree form a strong framework
Remove weak, diseased, injured or narrow-angle branches (the weaker of any crossing or interfering branches), and one branch of forked limbs. Also remove upright branches and any that grow toward the center of tree. You want to keep your tree from becoming too thick and crowded and to keep its height reasonable. All these objectives promote improved bearing, which is your overall aim. Try to achieve the general shape of the trees in the drawings provided, but be sure to allow your tree to express its own individuality.
Tips for Pruning
• Apple, Pear, European Blue Plums & Cherry Trees
These trees do best when pruned and trained to a central leader tree. This type of tree has a pyramidal shape with a single upright leader limb as its highest point. This leader is the newest extension of a long, upright growing trunk from which all lateral branches arise. As with all strong growing branches, the leader should be headed back each year. The uppermost bud on the leader produces a vigorous new leader, and no other shoot should be allowed to grow taller. Lateral limbs should be selected from shoots growing out from the central leader. These should be spaced vertically 4-6” apart, have growth that is more horizontal than vertical and point in different compass directions from the trunk.
• Peach, Nectarine, Japanese Plums & Apricot Trees
These trees do best when pruned and trained to a vase-shape. This type of tree should have no central leader. The shape of the tree is controlled by selecting and maintaining three to five main scaffold limbs arising from the trunk. These limbs should point in different directions and originate no less than 18″ and no more than 36” from the ground. Prune as shown, balancing growth evenly between the scaffold limbs.
• Miniature Peach, Nectarine & Apricot Trees
These do not require shaping cuts. However, because they grow so densely, they require regular dormant thinning cuts to remove competing and crossing limbs.
• Whips (Unbranched Trees)
Prune back to 28-36” above the ground at planting time. After the new branches have grown 3-5”, select a shoot to become the leader and scaffold limbs.
• Off-Season Pruning
Sometimes pruning should be done even when the season isn’t the best. Such would be the case if a branch is broken by the wind or by a heavy load of fruit. Emergency treatment is necessary! Prune back the ragged edges, making a smooth cut that leaves no stubby stump. Fast-growing “water sprouts” can be removed as soon as you see them, rather than waiting until winter.
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How and When to Prune Fruit Trees
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.
“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.
READ COMPLETE ANSWER “Apple trees don’t need to be pruned as aggressively,” he continued, “but they still need lots of thinning when the fruits begin forming.” Ah yes, the thinning of the fruits. I told Lee how guilty I feel when I’m out there filling five gallon buckets with little baby peaches—not to mention how time consuming the process is.
“It’s absolutely essential”, he stresses. “Peaches and apples need to have the vast majority of their developing fruits removed if you want to harvest good quality fruits at the end of the season. And the sooner you remove them, the better results you’ll get. Get all of the extra fruits off the tree while they’re still tiny and the tree can then devote the maximum amount of energy to the ones that are left behind.”
Is this another area, like peach tree pruning, where people typically don’t go far enough? “Absolutely”, replied Lee, who would probably have been waving a finger disapprovingly at me if we weren’t talking on the phone. Maybe he was anyway.
“It’s been estimated that to get the ideal harvest of big, well-shaped fruits, only one apple blossom in twenty should be allowed to set fruit,” he explains.
Only one in twenty?
“That’s right: Five percent,” he assured me.
Looks like I’m going to need a bigger bucket.
OSU Extension Catalog
- Jeff L. Olsen
PNW 400 Revised July 2011 Reviewed: August 2019
Why train fruit trees?
• Training develops a strong tree structure that can support heavy crops without limb breakage.
• Training helps bring a young tree into production at an early age.
Why prune fruit and nut trees?
• Pruning reduces overall tree size.
• Pruning makes trees easier to spray and harvest.
• Pruning young trees can improve structural strength and induce branching.
• Pruning mature trees can increase their production and improve fruit quality.
• Pruning reduces the need to prop up fruit-laden branches.
Branch collar—The raised tissue at the base of every branch. It contains specialized cells that seal off pruning wounds from wood rot fungi.
Crotch angle—The angle formed between the trunk and a limb. The strongest crotch angle is 45 to 60 degrees.
Crown—The base of the trunk where the tree meets the soil.
Heading (or head cut)—A pruning cut that removes only part of a branch.
Lateral branch—A side shoot off of another branch, usually at a more horizontal angle.
Leader—The uppermost portion of a scaffold limb. In a central-leader trained tree, only one leader is left in the center of the tree. Multiple-leader trained trees usually have three to five leaders per tree.
Scaffold limb—A large limb that forms a tree’s framework.
Shoot—The length of branch growth in one season. The bud scale scars (ring of small ridges) on a branch mark the start of a season’s growth.
Spur—A short shoot that fruits.
Stub—A short portion of a branch left after a pruning cut. Avoid leaving stubs.
Sucker sprout—A 1-year-old shoot that grows from the root.
Terminal—The end of any shoot.
Thinning cut—A pruning cut that removes an entire branch from its point of origin.
Vertical branch—A branch that grows upright.
Water sprout—A 1-year-old shoot that grows within the tree.
Save the branch collar, and don’t use wound dressings.
Prune so that you don’t leave a stub (figure 2), and also so that you don’t make a wound larger than necessary (as occurs with a “flush cut”). Cut just outside the branch collar (the raised tissue at the base of every branch). Its specialized cells seal off pruning wounds from wood rot fungi.
There’s no clear evidence that wound dressings reduce wood rots in pruning wounds. Early tree training helps you avoid large pruning wounds low in the tree, which might become infected.
General rules for training
• Start training at planting time.
• Remove unwanted shoots in summer when they’re small.
• Train more by limb positioning than by pruning.
• Follow the training program consistently, as often as necessary, so that you complete proper training as soon as possible.
Manage your fruit trees actively
The best ways for homeowners to control the height of a fruit tree are to plant a dwarfing rootstock, prune well, or use a trellis system. Keeping the tree’s height low allows for easier harvesting and pest management. As a homeowner, you may have inherited fruit trees on your property from previous owners. You can either choose to manage them or replace them with a variety, rootstock, or training system that controls the overall height of the tree. A post-and-wire trellis system is a popular way to keep fruit trees at a manageable height (see “Espalier training”).
Untended fruit trees can become infestation sites for serious insect and disease pests. Untended trees can make it difficult for commercial growers in the region to control key pests. If you are using an untended fruit tree mostly for shade, perhaps you should replace it with a nonfruiting shade tree.
General rules for pruning
• Prune all fruit and nut trees at planting time to balance the tops with the roots. You’ll need much less pruning at planting if you plan to irrigate the young tree frequently during its establishment.
• Prune young trees very lightly.
• Prune mature trees more heavily, especially if they’ve shown little growth.
• Prune the top portion of the tree more heavily than the lower portion.
• Prune when all danger from fall or early winter freeze has passed, but before full bloom in spring. Sweet cherry trees may be pruned in August when there’s less danger of bacterial infection.
• In a mature tree, thin out more of the shoots that grow toward the end of a well-pruned branch. This increases fruit size and quality on the remaining shoots (figure 3).
• To reduce the height of a tree that’s too tall, cut limbs at the top of the tree to a lateral branch that is the height you desire (figure 4). Leave the branch collar but don’t leave stubs. Stubs won’t heal and could be a starting point for wood rot fungi.
• Thinning out and heading back (figure 11)
• Thinning out results in long, flexible limbs that bend down when loaded with fruit. Heading back causes limbs to branch laterally and stiffen. Light heading stimulates branching when you train young trees.
• Bend nearly vertical limbs 45 to 60 degrees from vertical to stimulate fruit production earlier in the life of the tree. Bend limbs to the desired angle and secure them in place by using weights, tying them with twine, or using notched limb spreaders in the crotch of the branch. Keep the bent limb in the desired position for one growing season to allow the branch to stiffen and stay at that angle. Take care to bend but not break the branch. The thicker and more upright a limb is, the more benefit it receives from bending. Bending helps keep a tree small and manageable by channeling the tree’s resources into fruit instead of shoot growth.
Tree training systems
Open center training (figure 5).
Choose three or four shoots to form main scaffold branches the first winter. Remove other shoots that might form competing limbs. Or, head them by removing one-fourth to one-third of their length if they’re long and not branched.
When you remove large limbs, first cut part way through the branch on the underside, then make the top cut. Don’t leave stubs.
To keep a tree small, prune moderately every year and don’t apply a lot of fertilizer, manure, or compost.
Central-leader training (figure 6).
If a nursery tree has few or no branches at planting, head it at 24 to 30 inches above ground. To train trees to a central leader, choose a vigorous shoot near the center of the tree after planting.
During spring or early summer, remove shoots near the leader that will compete with it (because of their upright aspect and vigor) (figure 7). In the dormant season, head the leader by one-third, and tie down or remove competing shoots.
Each year, spread limbs that are too upright (figure 8). Repeat the process in the following two seasons so that no side branches become vigorous enough to compete with the central leader.
Some dwarf apple varieties (such as Liberty, shown in figure 6) have wide-angled limbs naturally and don’t need heading or spreading if they’re supported. Delicious, Newton, and other varieties with narrow crotches or upright limbs—or both—do require spreading. The central leaders of non-supported trees need annual heading to develop short, stout limbs.
Modified central-leader training
A modified central-leader training system follows the same steps described for central-leader training (figure 6). The central leader causes the lateral branches’ angles off the trunk to be wider, which increases the crotch strength and helps induce early fruit production. Once you’ve chosen and established the main scaffold branches (figure 1), the central leader is no longer necessary. You can remove the central leader in the third or fourth year of growth. Now, you’ll be training the tree to a multiple-leader system.
Espalier training develops trees in two dimensions only. In a home garden, you might use it to save space and to enhance the aesthetic appeal of your fruit trees. It also creates a tree form that is easier to pick, prune, and spray thoroughly for pests.
You can grow dwarf apple trees on a post and wire trellis in a hedgerow. Posts may extend from 6 to 10 feet above the ground.
Treated posts are best, but sound, untreated 4 x 4 cedar posts may work well. Anchor the end posts against another post driven several feet into undisturbed soil at an opposing angle.
Use galvanized wire, 12-gauge or heavier. The lowest wire should be about 4 feet above the ground, with higher wires at 2-foot intervals. Tie the main trunk to these wires, using a loop big enough to allow the trunk to grow without being girdled. If you attach the trunk to the trellis wire with 5⁄8-inch box staples, it will graft to the wire and not girdle.
If you use individual posts at each tree, make sure they extend at least 6 feet above the ground, and drive or sink them at least 2 feet into the ground. Wooden tree stakes should be 2 inches or more in diameter.
When training the tree, select buds to form the branches at the proper height and cut off the tree just above them. As these buds grow—and before they’ve produced enough wood to become stiff—fasten the shoots that grow from them to training wires or sticks with masking tape or other suitable material (figure 9).
Palmette is a specific pattern of espalier training. Develop the lowest branches first, angling them at about 30 degrees at the start. Widen this to 45–50 degrees when they’re as long as you want them (figure 10).
Head the central leader just above where you want branches, and develop one or two higher pairs of branches, keeping them shorter and slightly more spreading than the lower pair. It’s best to have at least 18 inches vertically between branches.
Figure 12 shows the difference in fruiting habit between peach and apple. Peaches bloom only on 1-year-old wood; apples usually bloom on spurs or shoots from 2-year-old wood. Figure 13 shows a mature apple tree’s fruit spurs, which bear the fruit crop. Cherries, plums, pears, and apples all produce their fruit on spurs.
Spurs require good light exposure in order to be fruitful. Thinning cuts that open up the tree to light penetration help to keep fruitful spurs throughout the tree canopy.
Long-handled pruning shears (figure 14, center) are the most useful tool for almost all pruning jobs.
Hand shears (figure 14, bottom) are useful for training young trees.
If you need to make large cuts, use a pruning saw (figure 14, upper left).
If you must use a ladder, use only a sturdy stepladder. Set it firmly on the ground to prevent accidents.
Applying the basics
Fully dwarf trees
You must support fully dwarf trees, or they’ll bend to the ground under the weight of their fruit. You can use individual stakes with each tree or build a trellis support system (see “Espalier training”).
Training fully dwarf apple trees to a central leader supported with a post or trellis (figure 6) can produce highly productive 6- to 10-foot trees. This system helps avoid bush-like trees only 4 or 5 feet tall that are bent down with the weight of their fruit.
In the spring following planting, when shoots are 3 to 4 inches long, select the uppermost vigorous shoot and remove other shoots near it. Return several times in summer and remove or tie down any shoots that could compete with the lead shoot because of their upright aspect and vigor. Head the lead shoot by a third in the dormant season.
Keep three to five branches that are 18 to 30 inches above ground to form a basic set of permanent branches. If they’re upright, tie or weigh them down to nearly horizontal. Position higher limbs to below horizontal to reduce their vigor relative to the permanent basic set.
You can train a semi-dwarf tree to a central leader or develop it as a multiple leader tree, depending on the tree’s vigor. Central leader training is best for weak-growing varieties on poor soil. Train vigorous varieties with multiple leaders (three or four lead branches) (when trained to central leaders, they may become too tall). When they’re 4 to 6 inches long, spread these shoots using cocktail-style toothpicks or spring-type clothespins placed in the crotches of the branches. On a windy site, support the tree with a sturdy stake for the first 10 years.
In the following years, spread or tie out the lead limbs to about 30 degrees from vertical. Weigh down the side limbs that arise from these or spread them to horizontal to stimulate early production. As the tree begins to bear fruit, limbs may require propping or tying to prevent breakage.
“Spur type” trees
This type of apple tree forms many small spurs on young growth rather than the usual long shoots and leaf buds (figure 15). This is how it got its name. Because these trees fruit at a young age and are smaller than standard strains of the same variety, they make ideal home orchard trees.
Each spur bears a flower cluster. The leaves are close together, the tree branches are less frequent, and the tree grows slowly.
Spur type trees are available on both vigorous and dwarfing rootstocks. If you grow them on vigorous rootstocks, they may not require artificial support until they are in production.
Because they branch sparsely, leave more branches in a spur type than in a tree of standard growth habit. To train them to a central leader, space the lower set of limbs several inches apart vertically on the leader, and reduce their number to four or five (figure 6).
Standard trees (full size trees on seedling rootstocks)
Fruit trees on seedling rootstocks are excessively vigorous, so they are not as suitable for home orchards as trees on growth-controlling rootstocks. If you choose to use a seedling rootstock, cut back the newly planted trees to 24 to 30 inches from the ground. Train them to the modified central-leader system.
It’s best to have only four main scaffold limbs, spaced equally around the trunk and vertically several inches apart. Develop the main scaffold limbs to just a few degrees above horizontal. Make sure that all secondary branches also have a gradual upward aspect (figure 5).
The branches of a mature, non-dwarf apple tree may spread over 40 feet in diameter and reach a height of 30 or 40 feet.
Prune regularly and tie down upright limbs in the top to maintain a height of 12 to 15 feet.
Prune to make the lowest limbs the most vigorous and productive in the tree (figure 16).
Shorten, thin out, and bend down the upper limbs to accomplish this. Remove risers (these grow straight up) and hangers (these grow straight down) from the permanent limbs to open a vertical space of about 3 feet between the lowest limbs and those above, so that light can penetrate.
Initial research shows promise for growing pears on a trellis, but most commercial pears in the Pacific Northwest are grown with a central leader or modified central-leader training system. If you feel adventurous, you can try growing trellised pears. The following recommendations describe the standard way to train pear trees.
Head pear trees at about 24 inches at planting. If the top is branched, keep three or four branches as leaders. Select these leaders early in the first summer and spread them. Do little or no pruning except to head and spread the leaders annually until the tree starts to bear.
Don’t head side branches. Heading would maintain their upright position. Spread or weight all vigorous shoots except the lead shoots.
Open ladder bays between scaffold limbs of mature trees, and regularly reduce tree height to what you can reach from your ladder. Shorten or remove upper limbs so they don’t shade the lower limbs. Thin out the branches of mature trees, and do the heaviest pruning in the top.
Remove long shoots in the center and top, but leave some short shoots and most spurs. Remove horizontal branches in the top so they won’t produce suckers.
Invigorate slow-growing spur systems by cutting them back to about half their length, or remove them and replace them with new shoots. On Anjou and Comice varieties, cut back most of the spur systems and some shoots to increase fruit size.
At planting, head nursery trees at the height you desire for scaffold branches. Train sweet cherry trees to the open center system (figure 5) with three to five scaffold branches. Young sweet cherry trees often grow vertical limbs 6 to 8 feet without branching. You must head them to induce lateral branch formation.
Prune in summer to reduce the re-growth of vigorous trees. If a young tree is growing very rapidly, cut off a foot or more of new growth after about 3 feet of growth has been made in the summer. This will cause branching. You can hasten production by tying down or weighting limbs to horizontal.
To promote branching on trees not pruned in summer, head every shoot in winter to about 2 feet.
After 5 or 6 years, stop heading and thin out crowded branches.
Bacterial canker, a common disease of cherry trees, frequently causes gumming and dead areas or “cankers” on limbs. If it infects the crown or trunk, it can kill the tree. If a gummy, dead area encircles most of a limb, you must cut off the limb.
Bacterial infection can enter through pruning wounds. To avoid this, prune in August. You usually can avoid death from bacterial canker by budding or grafting a variety about a foot out on the rootstock limbs.
Mature trees require little pruning except as needed to reduce tree height. If birds are eating a lot of the fruit, you may want to net the tree.
Sour cherry wood is quite brittle, so give special attention to developing wide-angled crotches in young trees. Either select wide-angled shoots to form limbs, or spread shoots to widen the angles. Three main scaffold limbs are enough for a sour cherry tree. The modified central-leader system helps form wide-angled scaffold limbs without having to spread them.
In the first and second summers, remove excess shoots so that all new growth is on the permanent scaffold limbs. In mature trees, only occasional thinning out of excess branches is needed to keep a good balance of light and fruitfulness throughout the tree.
Cut off peach trees about 12 to 20 inches above the ground at planting. Train trees to the open center or vase type system (figure 5). Develop no more than three or four main scaffold limbs. Select shoots that have the widest angles where they attach to the trunk and that are not all at the same height. Peach limbs with poor crotches split out more frequently than limbs of many other fruit trees.
Remove scaffold limbs that may compete with the three or four originally selected. Do this in the spring of the second year and again in the third year if necessary. Head the scaffold limbs in the first and second dormant seasons to cause branching until there are 6 to 8 secondary scaffold branches and 12 to 16 tertiary branches.
Peach trees bear only on l-year-old shoots (figure 12).
Every year, prune enough to stimulate new shoot growth for the following year’s crop. Peach trees branch readily, so they will have too many weak shoots unless you prune them properly. Thin out shoots, leaving those of moderate vigor. Remove all weak or very strong shoots.
Prune hardest in the top and near the ends of the major limbs. Cut top limbs back to side shoots to stiffen them and reduce tree height. Peach trees crop more consistently and have larger fruits if they’re pruned heavily. Commonly, up to 50 percent of the previous season’s growth is removed each year.
Prune and plum
Train prune and plum trees to the open center system (figure 5) with three or four main scaffold limbs. Prune very lightly for the first 5 years.
Head only the limbs that will be permanent scaffolds, remove scaffold limbs that may compete with the three or four originally selected, and do little else. Weighting or bending limbs stimulates early production.
In mature trees, thin out the top every few years and remove dead limbs as they appear. Most plums and prunes have ample bloom every year, so you only need to prune enough to control height and spread, keep the trees fairly vigorous, and prevent limb breakage.
Japanese varieties (such as Shiro, Redheart, and Burbank) have many long, thin shoots, so heading is far more important in them than it is in most European varieties.
Apricot trees usually develop many branches in the nursery. Select some of them to be scaffold branches at planting time. Cut these branches back a few inches and remove other branches. One year after planting, cut back long shoots to induce branching. Train the tree as you would for peaches.
Pruning bearing apricot trees is mostly a process of thinning out excess wood and heading long shoots. After a side shoot has produced for 3 or 4 years, remove it and let a new shoot grow in its place.
Fig trees can be grown in a multiple or single-trunk form. If you live in a region with severe freezing weather, consider growing the multiple trunk form so you can thin out trunks that suffer freeze damage. In other regions, a single-trunk form with three to five scaffold branches is suitable.
A mature fig tree can reach the size of a walnut tree. Be sure to prune the top for good light penetration into the canopy. Figs produce fruit on the current season’s shoots, so heading branches to stimulate shoot growth is helpful.
There are two types of persimmon trees, American and Asian. The Asian persimmon tree is smaller when mature than the American and needs less maintenance pruning to contain its height. A multiple scaffold system with three to five main scaffold branches is suitable for persimmons.
Pruning an old, neglected fruit tree
A tree that hasn’t been pruned for several years has a dense thicket of upright shoots in the top and many weak, pendulant (downward facing) spur systems further down (figure 17). It’s best to prune the tree back into shape gradually over several years, rather than trying to do the whole job all at once.
After you identify the main scaffold branches, saw out any excess large branches. Cut ladder bays so you can place your ladder in the tree’s center. Climb as high on your ladder in the tree’s center as you intend to pick, and cut the main scaffold limbs down to the height that you can reach.
Remove limbs that overlap or hang down into other limbs. Thin out most of the upright shoots, leaving some of the smaller ones. Cut back weak, pendulant limbs. Gradually invigorate the spur systems by cutting back some and removing others. Keep the center of the tree fairly free of limbs so that light can penetrate.
Don’t head shoots. Remove them entirely, or let them bear fruit and rely on the weight of the fruit to bring them down. Thin off shoots on the inside of upright branches so that fruit will pull them to the outside.
Cut off a newly planted walnut tree 4 or 5 feet above the ground. If you don’t make this cut, the tree won’t grow much for several seasons. The lowest limbs of a walnut tree have a habit of drooping, so they should originate fairly high on the trunk.
Select three to five main scaffold branches in the first and second growing seasons and remove excess branches at that time. Use a modified central-leader system to help form wide-angled scaffold limbs.
After the scaffold branches have developed, no further pruning is required. Pruning doesn’t hurt walnut trees, but they’re so large that it’s difficult to prune the top (where pruning would do the most good). Pruning will invigorate most old, weak walnut trees.
In nature, hazelnuts grow as bushes, but you can force them to grow in a single trunk by annually removing the sprouts that grow at ground level. Train the tree with three or four scaffolds, similar to training peaches (page 10).
To be most productive, a hazelnut tree should make 6 to 8 inches of new terminal shoot growth every year on shoots at shoulder height. Frequent pruning helps maintain this growth.
Prune hazelnut trees like peaches, but less severely. Hazelnut wood is especially susceptible to wood-rotting fungi, so it’s important to make cuts at the branch collar with limbs or trunk.
Pruning methods for walnuts also work for chestnut trees. Head a newly planted tree around 4 feet from the ground, and select three to five scaffold branches after the first season of growth. Use a modified central-leader system to help form wide-angled scaffold limbs. If scaffold branches have not produced lateral growth in the first 3 feet, then head the scaffold to stimulate lateral branching.
In mature trees, prune in the top to ensure good light penetration throughout the canopy. Fully mature chestnut trees grow to 40 feet tall.
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Ever since the beginning of time, apple trees have been of great importance to supply people with tasty fruits. They may be called “the forbidden” fruits, but apples are relatively easy to care for and you can expect to obtain a good yield in most years, especially if you learn how to prune apple trees.
Considering that apple trees are so widespread across the world and are present in orchards from different regions it’s important to know how to properly care for them. Pruning is an important step to help the apple trees to grow, develop and regenerate to offer as many fruits as possible.
When is the best time to prune an apple tree?
The best time to prune apple trees is either late in the winter or early in the spring because that’s the time when the tree is entering a dormant state after shedding its leaves and before new buds appear. It’s best to complete the pruning just before the growth starts in the spring, so the cuts have time to heal quickly. If you start pruning too early in the winter, the cuts will remain open and unprotected to low temperatures during winter until the growth period resumes in late March.
Pruning is not as complex as it may seem at first glance, because once you learn the basics, it’s really easy to fulfill this task. Therefore, the main purpose of this article is to help you learn the ropes so that pruning an apple tree shouldn’t be a burden for you, even if you’re not an experienced farmer.
Learn your pruning terms
First of all, get to know the “slang” to help you learn how to prune an apple tree:
Dormant state – a tree is in a dormant state in the winter, usually between November and February. During this state, all the leaves have fallen, and the tree is basically in energy-saving mode, focusing its processes in the roots, the tree trunk, and the main branches.
Flower buds – are larger than growth buds and produce flowers which in turn mature into fruit.
Growth buds – they have a slightly pointy shape than flower buds and they grow flush with the branch.
Terminal buds – can be found at the tip of branches and when they are removed, the buds below them are stimulated to produce woody side shoots which will later develop into branches.
Spurs – branches that produce fruit, in this case, apples.
Leader branch – a branch that grows upwards ahead of other branches and can be found in the center of the branches.
Whorl – the location of three or more branches, usually found it mature unpruned trees.
Water sprouts – thin branches that grow from later branches of the tree and do not produce any fruit.
Main reasons to prune an apple tree
You’re probably wondering why you should bother with pruning, aren’t trees just suppose to grow on their own and produce fruit? Turns out, it’s not as simple unless you are happy with just the fruit you may or may not obtain. Pruning is done for the following reasons:
- To establish the basic structure of the apple tree, to make it easier to care for and to obtain a higher yield.
- To remove diseased or dead wood and to maintain the health of the tree.
- To allow the sunlight to help the fruits ripen evenly.
Choosing your apple tree shape
There are several options when it comes to deciding which type of shape you want to pick for your apple tree.
- A conical shape gives the highest yield and it the most commonly used in apple orchards.
- A round shape is also easy to control, by modifying the shape of the leader branch.
- A vase shape allows having an open center, which makes it sometimes easier to pick the apples, depending on the fruit-picking method used in the orchard.
Choose the right pruning tools
Before you start pruning away, make sure you have adequate tools on hand:
- A good pair of pruning shears – sharp and rust-free;
- A pair of lopping shears or a saw – for large branches;
- A sturdy ladder;
- Heavy-duty gardening gloves – you don’t want to hurt or scratch your hands while working with pointy branches and sharp tools;
- Safety glasses – it’s a good idea to put some on to prevent any wood splinters to get into your eyes;
- Sacks, barrels or other types of containers – to gather the debris;
- Colored chalk – perfect to mark the places you want to cut once you have the shape of your apple tree in mind.
What to cut and what to keep when pruning an apple tree?
Start your pruning by removing any diseased, damaged or dead wood you encounter. It’s easy to spot dead or diseased limbs because they snap easily and are very brittle. Plus, diseased limbs also have different coloring than the rest of the branches. Damages can occur when branches rub against each other because they don’t have enough space to grow, or when branches partially break in certain places because of the weight of the apples. Remember, damaged, diseased or dead wood should be removed any time of the year, not just when it’s pruning season because it helps prevent the spreading of diseases to healthy branches as well.
When you remove large branches, make sure you make more cuts, because you don’t want the branch to tear down on the trunk when it falls. Make the first cut just below the branch, about a few centimeters from the trunk. Make a second cut a few centimeters below the first and cut all the way through. You should be left with a stump which can be easily removed from the tree. Don’t cut too close to the trunk and leave 3-4 centimeters so that the branch collar can grow over the wound and seal in time.
To stimulate growth, you can make good use of heading cuts. Heading cuts are made along the length of the branch. Heading cuts are needed especially for young trees, but as the tree ages, heading cuts are no longer necessary because mature trees are seldom in need of new branches. Make the heading cuts above growth buds that are facing outwards, so that new branches can develop away from the tree. Heading cuts are very practical to shape young apple trees. For example, a heading cut made on the central leader branch will produce a new horizontal branch. Avoid heading cuts once the shape of the apple tree is completed or use them sparsely to avoid overcrowding the tree. If you want to shorten thin lateral branches using heading cuts, make the cuts in old wood to have less new growth.
Whorls, water sprouts and suckers (unwanted shoots that grow near the base of the tree trunk) don’t produce any fruits and are therefore useless. It’s safe to say your apple tree will certainly not miss them when removed. Use thinning cuts to remove these “offenders”. Thinning cuts are made to remove entire branches or limbs and to open the interior of the tree to receive more sunlight. Thinning cuts are used very often to prune apple trees because you have to remove excess branches more often than you have to create new ones.
Remove branches that cross each other or that are facing downwards. These types of branches can never fully develop and they will most likely bear very little or no fruit at all, so they’re more of a burden for your apple tree. Crossing branches can cause wounds because they rub against each other and open wounds are also an open invitation to disease. Moreover, crossing branches are providing the perfect environment for moisture and you don’t want that because your tree may rot in areas that are too humid or if callouses develop there.
Given that you decided on the shape of your apple tree and you identified your leader branch, it’s time to remove vertical branches. Vertical branches will compete with the leader and they will close off the top of the tree and shade the fruits growing below.
After getting rid of vertical branches, it’s time to thin out your apple tree to maintain its shape. However, make sure you don’t cut too much. You should remove at most one-third of the interior branches.
Regarding upper branches, you want them shorter than the lower branches, to have evenly distributed sunlight. Don’t forget to make thinning cuts, otherwise, you will end up with a bushy and overcrowded tree.
Finally, when it comes to flower buds, sometimes you may need to thin those out as well. You don’t want to have a crowded spur, because the fruit produced is smaller and it may even to ripe properly. This isn’t usually the case with young trees, but it never hurts to check. Spurs should have only 4-5 flower buds to have decent sized fruits.
Final tips for the perfect apple tree pruning
- Start with the bigger cuts first. Before you start cutting a smaller branch, follow it back to its origin to make sure you don’t find other problems on the way. For example, you may find that a smaller branch is crossing another one at the back, so it’s best to cut closer to the trunk.
- Make clean cuts. Your pruning tools should be sharp and clean because it helps you a great deal to do your work. If you do a lot of pruning, you may need to stop from time to time and re-sharpen your tools. It’s also a good idea to invest in quality tools because it saves you time and money along the way.
- If you need to use a saw to cut larger branches, make a shallow undercut first before you cut all the way through from above to avoid ripping off the protective bark of the tree.
- Thick or long limbs should be cut into sections. It may take longer, but it’s much safer and you avoid causing any damage to the healthy branches or the tree trunk.
- Don’t rush when you prune your apple tree. Stop from time to time and check the progress, to see if the shape of the tree is what you want it to be and to even out branches here and there. It’s not only a matter of design, as the shape of the apple tree is crucial for fruit development.
How to prune young apple trees
If you just started your apple tree orchard or if you have a new apple tree in your yard, you should know that young branches are sturdy enough to hold the weight of lots of fruit. Make heading cuts to remove just a quarter or a third of the growth from the previous season.
You can also reduce the length of the leader branch by a quarter or even by a third because this helps the tree redirect its energy towards new growth lower down. Subsequently, pruning and harvesting are easier as the apple tree matures.
How to prune old or neglected apple trees
In most orchards, old trees or the ones that don’t bear much fruit are simply removed, but sometimes you may want to keep an apple tree around to improve the landscape, to try and improve the quality of the fruit or maybe it’s an apple tree that has sentimental value.
In this case, pruning is done just like you would do with any other apple tree. However, keep in mind that it takes 2-3 years to restore an apple tree that has been neglected and only after a careful assessment. In other words, if the main framework of the tree is badly damaged or if you have to cut too much diseased or dead wood, it may not be worth your effort. If you think you can’t restore an old, neglected apple tree, it’s best to just remove it entirely and plant a new one.
Now you should be all set up to start pruning. Don’t forget the essentials: have good tools on hand, remove all the useless branches and always balance out the shape of your apple tree.