Fruit Tree Pruning Basics

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura

The time to start pruning your fruit trees is right around the corner. I will be focusing on fruit trees that loose their leaves during the winter (deciduous) like Apricots, Peaches, Plums, Pluots, Apples, Nectarines, and Cherries. Winter is the time of year to do your main pruning of these individuals. Below are basic concepts that should be implemented. Please see the provided pictures to better understand these concepts.

Why do you prune:
You prune fruit trees to:
Control size for easier care in maintaining and picking fruit.
Increase strength and to develop strong limb structure.
Distribute sunlight and airflow evenly throughout the tree.
Regulate fruit bearing – removes excess fruitwood.
Renew fruitwood – to continue strong buds and flower.
Remove undesirable wood- dead, broken, and crossing branches.

Pruning new trees at planting time:
If you wish, you can prune your newly planted dormant / bare root fruit tree as low as 24 to 30 inches high and cut any side shoots, remaining below that, to one bud. This encourages low branching and equalizes the top and root system. Remember to whitewash the tree with tree trunk paint (white latex paint) to protect it from sunburn and borer attack.

Young trees should be pruned fairly heavily and encouraged to grow rapidly for the first 3 years without any fruit. If any fruit does develop you may want to consider removing it. Leave most of the small horizontal branches untouched for later fruiting.

Winter pruning:
Winter is the time for detail pruning and is done before the tree breaks dormancy (putting on leaves, buds swelling and showing color).The time to prune is during November through February or March when the tree is dormant and has no leaves on it because it’s easier to see what you are doing and removal of dormant buds (growing points) invigorates the remaining buds. The window of opportunity for pruning depends on the variety of fruit, some fruits are early bloomers, while others may be later to
bloom. An early Peach for example, may break dormancy in early February, so your window of opportunity for pruning is lessened. Another variety may be later, toward the month of March, so your window of opportunity is greater. After you are done winter pruning, then it is necessary to do your dormant spraying a copper fungicide and horticultural oil) to control over wintering insects and funguses.

Basic principles:
Always when pruning, proper technique should be followed. Make cuts at a 45 degree angle just above a bud using clean, good quality pruning implements that are in good working order. The reason why you prune at a 45 degree angle is so that water drains away, so rot does not form. It is wise to also leave a short stub (about 1/2 inch ) so if rot does develop, It essentially creates a buffer zone between the pruning cut and the main branch.

When pruning, cut just above where a growing point is, namely a bud. Always prune just above a growing bud the that is pointed away from the center of the tree. Look at the branch you are going to prune, carefully examine the buds, they will be pointing in different directions. The area you prune in relation to the bud dictates the direction the new growth will grow. When pruning, always prune to an outward facing bud.

It is best to prune the vegetative buds and leave the fruit buds alone in most cases. Vegetative buds only produce leaves and branches. These buds are pointed, slender and closer to the stem. Vegetative buds are on 1 year old wood while fruit/ flowering buds produce flowers and fruit are sometimes older than 1 year. These buds are plump, round, fatter and protrude out from the stem. They have short internodes and sometimes arise off of secondary branches. Heading cuts thickens the branches, strengthens the stem, and induces formation of fruit buds Topping a vertical branch encourages vegetative growth necessary for development of the tree and opens the it to more sunlight and airflow. Topping horizontal branches is done to renew fruiting wood and to thin out excessive fruit. Horizontal branches left uncut will bear earlier and heavier crops.Upright branches generally remain vegetative and vigorous. Horizontal branches generally are more fruitful. A good combination of the two is necessary for fruiting now and in future years.

When pruning, make sure to remove dead, dying, and weak branches. Cut off any diseased branches well beyond the site of infection and make sure to always at anytime disinfect your pruning tools between each and every cut so you do not contaminate healthy parts or other plants you may be pruning. I suggest to use disinfecting wipes because they are convenient and easy to use. You can also use a solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach diluted in a bucket of 1 gallon of water and simply dip your pruners into that solution between each and every cut. The practice of disinfecting your pruning tools is also beneficial in killing some insect eggs or overwintering insects.

Remove branches that are rubbing on another, awkward angels, interfering wood, narrow crotches, downward bending branches, crossing branches, or branches that have come close to the ground, and anything that is growing to the inside of the tree.

Cut out growth so you have evenly spaced branches throughout the tree to allow sunlight and air flow through the entire plant. In doing this especially Apples, make sure to leave the fruiting spurs and the small lateral buds that are to be future fruiting spurs. Spurs are formed on branches that are one year old or more and are usually in the lower portions of the branches. Spurs are developed form short lateral growth that very in length. The are recognized by their thick stubby appearance and they should be
saved when ever possible.

Remove any water sprouts and suckers at anytime you see them. A sucker is a rapid growing shoot that comes from below the ground and they should be removed as soon as they appear by digging down to their base and cutting them off very close to the root or trunk You may want to apply tree seal over the removed sucker to prevent rot form occurring. A water sprout is an above ground sucker and is recognized by excessive amount of growth in comparison to the rest of the branch. Water sprouts are weak and will not develop into quality fruit producing wood. By removing both these type of
growths it allows more energy to more useful branches.

Any growth that appears below the graft or bud union should always be removed. The graft is the portion of the tree that is the joining part of the rootstock (below ground portion) and the scion (the above ground portion). The graft is usually recognized by a knob or something similar near the bottom of the tree above the soil. Growth should never occur from below this point. Prune Peaches and Nectarines hard to encourage new growth in summer otherwise the fruit will produce farther and farther out on the branches each year. Stone fruits like Peaches Nectarines, Plums, and so forth prune so they have an open vase (or open center structure with no central leader) meaning don’t have any growth growing inward or future growth towards the inside. An open center allows easy access to pruning and harvesting your crop. Remove any vertical growth that is vegetative which will not produce fruit. Cut out long shoots because only the lower part of the tree produces the fruit.

Prune Apricots almost the same way as Peaches but keep any eye out for spurs. For slower growers like Apples, Pears, and Cherries you primarily need to remove dead wood, twiggy growth, and misplaced branches. You cut vegetative growth a little. Prune Peach and Nectarine to remove 50% of last years growth. Fig, Apple, Pear, Plum and Apricot remove about 20% of last years growth. Cherries only summer prune the first 5 years. While doing your pruning, if you see any mummies ( old, dried up fruit that remains on the tree) it its best to remove and throw them away. These structures harbor overwintering insects and diseases that may infect you tree later on.

Removing Large Limbs:
When removing large limbs, first saw part way through the limb on the under side ahead of your intended cut. Do this so it won't tear the trunk as it comes off. Also, don’t make the final cut flush with the trunk or parent limb; be sure to leave a short stub. What If you have an old, large tree that is too unruly and want to make it smaller so it is easier to manage and pick the fruit. If the tree is taller than 20 feet and you feel unsafe on a ladder, or the job is just bigger than you want to take on – call a professional arborist! If the tree is older than 20 years, this can be a mistake; the results simply might not be worth the time and effort. Some old trees are beyond their peak productive years and the trauma of a drastic reduction in size could make them more susceptible to other problems.  Consult a professional arborist if this is a concern. If you love the fruit and choose to keep the aging tree, it is essential to maintain its health – the right amount of watering, pruning out diseased limbs, and etc.  Otherwise, have the tree removed and replace it with a new great-tasting variety of your choice.

Pruning for size control: Keep fruit trees low: (Summer Pruning)
Why Summer Prune:
Summer pruning can be beneficial, when used to slow down overly vigorous trees or
trees that are too large.

Many people have smaller yards and still want to have fruit trees. If the trees are left to
grow on their own devices they can over power the area. Pruning is critical in
developing a smaller size.

Managing the size of young trees is much easier than older trees. It its easier to keep a
small tree short than it is to make a large tree small.

When you summer prune it is easier to harvest the fruit because it is at a lower picking
height. A big tree will oftentimes be wasteful because you can’t access the fruit with
ease and therefore the birds or other wildlife may get it provided it does not rot on the
tree. Smaller trees offer ease of care, spraying, pruning, and thinning.

Choose a height and don't let the tree grow any taller. Summer pruning is mainly used
for size control. Pruning is the only way to keep your fruit trees under 12 feet tall.

A good height is the height you can reach for thinning and picking while standing on the
ground or on a low stool.

How to Summer Prune:
How do you keep fruit trees in a smaller space at a manageable size, the answer is
summer pruning.

Whenever there are vigorous shoots above the chosen height, cut back or remove
them. The growth you prune off will never become fruiting wood, that wood already
formed earlier.

Prune to a size that is best for you.

You can keep fruit trees to any desired height whether it is a semi dwarf or standard size
tree by size management. Prune to the size that best suits your needs. If you want it
low, prune more, if you want it really high, prune less.The tree height is the decision of
the pruner.

When to Summer Prune:
Just after fruit harvest ( May, July, and September depending on the variety)

First Year
Size control and development of low fruiting wood begins in the first year.

Step 1 At planting time, dormant/ bare root trees may be pruned as low knee height
above the ground to force very low scaffold limbs or, alternatively, trees may be
pruned higher than that (up to four feet) depending on the presence
of well-spaced side limbs or desired tree form.

Step 2 After the spring flush of growth cut the new growth back by half.

Step 3 In late summer (late August to mid-September) cut the subsequent
growth back by half.

Step 4 Remove broken and diseased limbs well below signs of infection.

Step 5 When limbs cross one another, one or both should be cut back or

Second Year
Step 1 Cut back new growth by half in spring and late summer, same as the first

Step 2 Prune to a vase shape (open center, no central leader).

Step 3 Thin out the center to allow plenty of sunlight and air flow into the interior of the

Step 4 and Step 5 same as first year

Repeat the process yearly.

Check out your favorite Green Thumb Nursery, we have lots of dormant or bare root
fruit trees arriving for winter planting.

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