There is a lot to learn when it comes to pruning fruit trees. If fruit production is your goal, then pruning your fruit tree is very important. In this guide, you’ll learn everything that you need to know about how to prune fruit trees the right way so you don’t damage your trees in the process.
We moved to our country home four years ago. One of the things I was so excited about when we bought the place was that the backyard had a few old fruit trees.
We have a pear tree, two apple trees, two pecan trees, and a plum tree. Four years ago I knew nothing about those trees, I was just so happy to have them. When I looked at them, I didn’t know to evaluate if they were healthy and producing or how old they were.
I did notice that no one had taken care of them for a while but they were so established and big that I figured they would probably produce a lot of fruit anyway. We also found about 100 jars of canned plum jam in the old shed which led me to believe that I was going to swim in fruit.
Then summer came and along with it came a handful of golf ball size apples full of black spots, a few plums the size of a large olive, some pecans that were dusty inside the shell, and a handful of pears that had a thick and bitter skin.
Talk about disappointment…
After the first season, I started thinking about this whole fruit production business. Was there a way for me to save those trees or should I not spend my time and just plant a new orchard? Can the old trees still be productive? The only way to know was to start taking care of the trees and the first order of the day was pruning.
I knew nothing about pruning fruit trees, however, that year, I had a trip to Israel scheduled for early spring which is the perfect time to prune fruit trees (more on this in a minute). So, once there, I joined my friend who owns a bazillion olive trees and is my go-to man for fruit tree care and off we went to prune some trees, learn, and practice.
Table of Content…
- What is Pruning?
- Benefits of Pruning Fruit Trees.
- What Should a Pruned Fruit Tree Look Like?
- When to Prune Fruit Trees.
- Fruit Tree Terminology.
- Understanding Tree Form.
- General Rules of Pruning.
- Pruning an Old, Neglected Fruit Tree.
- Tools For Pruning Fruit Trees.
- How to Prune a Fruit Tree.
- More Information About Growing Fruit Trees.
- More Information About Pruning Fruit Trees.
What is Pruning?
Pruning is cutting or trimming off certain parts of a tree or a plant in order to encourage growth and fruitfulness. Generally, you should prune at planting time and you should take away 1/3 of your tree through pruning every year after that.
You might be asking… Do I have to prune my fruit trees? The answer is no. There are many permaculture teachers that will support leaving a tree alone to do its thing. Will it bear fruit? Yes, however, it will probably bear less fruit and the fruit won’t be as big and healthy as the fruit of a tree that is pruned every year. So if fruit production is your main goal in growing fruit trees, you should prune your trees.
Take into consideration… Pruning is a yearly chore. Once you start pruning a fruit tree you should keep doing it every year. If you let a tree that got used to be pruned go unpruned it will probably grow worse than a tree that was never pruned to begin with.
Benefits of Pruning Fruit Trees…
Strong tree structure – pruning helps the tree develop a strong structure that can support heavy fruit.
Early production – pruning right from the moment you planted a new tree will stimulate its growth and will promote early fruit production.
Controlling size – growing fruit trees doesn’t mean that you are going to have to climb a ladder 30 feet high… By pruning your fruit trees, you can make sure that they stay small and manageable.
Easy care – taking care of a pruned tree that is smaller and not too high is so much easier. Spraying or harvesting, netting the tree to protect from birds or insects… All those chores are much easier with a smaller tree.
Improve fruit quality – pruning results in healthier fruit. Since the tree doesn’t waste energy on supporting damaged or dead or sick branches, it can focus its energy on producing healthy, large, and beautiful fruit.
Sunlight and airflow – when growing any type of food-producing plant, if it’s a fruit tree or a tomato plant, you learn very quickly how important airflow and sunlight are. Pruning allows for space between the branches which allows for sunlight and proper airflow. This prevents mold and a whole lot of different diseases.
What Should a Pruned Fruit Tree Look Like?
The difference between a pruned tree to a neglected tree is obvious in the photo above. On the left, you can see my plum tree. It’s one of the neglected trees that I found in the backyard of the property that we purchased.
It has a few large branches and then a million tiny ones. Some of them are dead, some are broken, many cross each other… Needless to say, this tree doesn’t produce much and whatever plums it does produce are a golf ball size and usually fall to the ground before they are ready (later in this post we will talk more about pruning an old tree).
On the right is my ex-mother-in-law’s fig tree. This tree has been taken cared of since it was planted. You can see that there are fewer branches, yet each one is thick and strong. They don’t cross each other and they are all healthy. This small tree produces more figs than a family of six will ever know what to do with.
When to Prune a Fruit Tree?
The answer to this question depends on what you are trying to accomplish and what kind of tree you are going to prune…
Late winter / early spring – this is the most common time to prune fruit trees. You are looking for those few weeks before the buds on the tree start to swell (in other words, before the tree wakes up from its winter sleep) but after the hard freeze (so the tree can work on healing the cut quickly).
This is also a great time simply because you can see the branches much better because the tree is bare of leaves. You can inspect the tree better, you can see crossing branches and so on. This is hard to do when there are leaves and fruit in the way.
Pruning a fruit tree in late winter or early spring will stimulate the growth of your fruit tree. In other words, it will make the tree grow faster once the weather warms up.
Summer / early fall – pruning in summer can be beneficial because you can see which branches are dead and not producing. You can see if the top of the tree is shading the bottom branches and which ones need to be removed. You can see if your fruit is hanging too low or if it’s too high.
Many gardeners do their main pruning in late winter or early spring and then do a second pruning in the summer. Take into consideration that where winter/spring pruning stimulates the growth of a fruit tree, summer pruning will slow down the growth of a fruit tree.
Some fruit trees are vigorous, like cherry trees for example. They grow too fast for their own good! These kind of trees will benefit from a summer pruning to slow them down a bit so they can focus on fruit production.
Pruning at planting – I mentioned this before but I think that it’s important to mention it again. It is important to prune a fruit tree at planting time! The reason is that in its first year, a young tree should focus most of its energy on developing a very strong and soundly structured root system. There should be very little top growth in young trees.
Pruning a small, young tree that you just planted might seem like a bad idea and it will indeed give you a reasonable heartache, but, down the road, you and the tree will benefit greatly from that first pruning.
Fruit Tree Terminology…
Before we go any further, let’s make sure that we are all on the same page and know and understand basic fruit tree terminology.
Trunk – the main trunk of a tree. Some trees (like fig, for example) can be grown on a multiple trunk form but most trees have one trunk.
Crown – the very base of the trunk, where it touches the soil.
Sucker sprout – sprouts that come from the root stock of a tree. Usually, we want to get rid of them and not let them compete with the main trunk, unless we are trying to develop a multi-trunk system.
Crotch angle – the angle between the trunk and a limb. The strongest angle is between 45 – 60 degrees.
Stub – a branch that was cut short.
Branch collar – the raised tissue at the base of every branch. The collar contains specialized cells that seal a wound. It is super important to not cut the collar when pruning. We want to make our cut right in front of the collar so the tree can heal the cut. On the other hand, we also don’t want to leave a stub.
Heading – this is a pruning cut but it’s important to mention it here so you know how to recognize it on a tree. A heading cut is a cut made to remove only a part of a branch. Sometimes, it results in a stub.
Thinning cut – another pruning cut. This cut removes a branch or a shoot from it’s point of origin.
Scaffold limb – a large limb that forms the tree’s framework.
Lateral branch – a side branch off of another branch.
Shoot – the length of branch growth in one season. On a tree branch, you’ll find buds (teardrop-shaped parts where new growth starts from), between the buds, you’ll notice rings of raised tissue (also called the bud scale scars). These rings represent growth years. So from where the branch starts, the first ring will represent the first year’s growth, the second will represent the second year’s growth, and so on.
Water sprout – a vertical, thin shoot that grows out of the trunk or another branch of a tree. It serves no purpose and doesn’t bear fruit.
Spur – a short shoot that fruits.
Leader – the top part of a scaffold limb.
Understanding Tree Form…
Another important thing to know before you start pruning your fruit trees is tree forms. There are four main forms to understand. Now, take into consideration that some trees will naturally “choose” a form, however, if you start pruning a tree at planting you can manipulate basically any tree to grow the way you want it to grow.
It is also important to realize that it will take an average of four years of pruning to set up a tree form that you can then maintain over the years.
Open Center – you can see the open center form that the tree on the right of the image above has. To train a tree to grow this way, you choose three or four shoots to form the tree’s main scaffold branches.
In other words, those are the shoots that will become the main branches and will make the frame of the tree. You then make sure to prune other branches according to the pruning principles below. Trees that grow well in an open center form are apple trees and plum trees.
Central-Leader – the tree on the left of the image above has a central leader form. You can see that it has one center scaffold limb than other branches that come out of it.
To train a tree to the central leader form, you’ll have to choose a strong shoot that is in the center of the tree at planting time. Then, prune any competing shoots (remove the ones that are growing upright) and use a piece of lumber to push other shoots away from the central leader by sticking them between the branch and the central leader (we are trying to open the angle there so they don’t grow upright like the central leader). Trees that will take this form naturally are pecan, almond, and pear trees.
Modified Central Leader – this is a combination of the two forms that I described above. In the beginning, the tree is trained to the central leader form, but as it grows you can choose a few main scaffold branches that come out of the main leader. Once these are established you can then cut off some of the main leader. Now, instead of having one main leader, you have a multi-leader system going on.
Espalier form – this is a two dimensions form. You might have seen a picture of a tree that was trained to grow along a wall or a fence, this is an espalier form. Pretty much a flat form. This can be really beneficial if you live in a city and don’t have much room. You can train your fruit trees to grow along a fence or the side of a shed or a house.
This is a fascinating way to train a tree but we are going to leave it be for now and focus on the other main forms.
General Rules of Pruning…
All right! I think we have a basic understanding of the anatomy of a tree and some tree forms, now let’s learn the basic principles of pruning a fruit tree… In other words, what branches should you prune?
Dead or dying– if your tree has any dead or dying branches, cut those away at their base (remember to cut right in front of the branch collar).
Diseased – think about pruning as a yearly tree evaluation time. This is a great time to examine your fruit tree closely. If you see diseased branches, remove them. While you are at it, think about a treatment plan. Is there a reoccurring problem with your tree that you need to find a treatment for? Is there spraying (organic or maybe non-organic) that needs to be done? When would you do it? Pruning is a great time to plan the season ahead.
Too high – even full-size trees don’t need to grow high in order to produce lots of fruit. Keep your tree at a size that is comfortable for you to manage. If you don’t want to climb a ladder, then keep it low by pruning the top branches or by heading them at a certain height.
Too low – on the other hand, you want the fruit off the ground. You don’t want the fruit in a puddle of mud and you don’t want your dog peeing on it and the deer enjoying what is supposed to be your harvest! So prune any branches that are too low.
Crossing – you want to do the best you can to eliminate crossing branches. When the wind blows, the branches will rub against each other and might damage the fruit or the branches themselves which will make them weaker and more prone to pests and disease.
Clustering – make sure you prune areas of clustered branches to encourage good airflow and sunlight.
Acute angles – you want to eliminate those because they make the branches weaker and once there is fruit on the branches they might break. So if you spot a branch in a Y shape, prune one of the top branches.
Pruning an Old, Neglected Fruit Tree…
Once I realized that the trees that were in the backyard of my new house weren’t producing a thing, once I understood that I’d have to prune them back considerably…I remember standing there in front of the plum tree, staring at it and feeling an awful headache forming at the back of my eyes.
It was overwhelming. I had no clue where I would even begin. Tiny little branches were everywhere…
If you are determined to save a neglected tree and you find yourself where I was, first know that it will take four, five, even six prunings to reach your desired result. One pruning is not going to solve all the tree’s problems.
Step 1 – your main goal is to understand the form of the tree. Does the tree you are looking at have a central leader or does it have a few main scaffold branches? You want to locate your main branches.
Step 2 – now, locate the secondary scaffolds. These will be the main branches that come off of the main scaffolds. Move your eyes along those and first clear them of water sprouts.
Step 3 – then, along each of the secondary scaffolds, look for diseased and dead shoots. Clean those out. Move on to looking for crossing branches, acute angles, clusters, and so on.
Branch by branch do the best you can the first year. It will be a good idea to visit that tree again in summer. Look for branches that don’t produce fruit, evaluate how much sunlight the lower branches get. Do you need to prune the top of the tree more heavily to allow light to reach the lower branches?
Year by year, it will get easier. You’ll get to know the tree on a personal level and there will be fewer and fewer branches to clean out.
Tools For Pruning Fruit Trees…
In order to make the least amount of damage to the tree, you want to make sure that your tools are sharp and clean.
Pruning shears – these will be good for pruning thin shoots (½’’ thick or so).
Folding saw – this saw will be useful for cutting branches that are around 1’’ in diameter.
Loppers – can be useful and maybe more comfortable for some gardeners to work with. They can cut both thin and thicker shoots. Just make sure to inspect your cut since it’s not always possible to make a clean cut with loppers.
Chainsaw – you’ll see us below using mainly a chainsaw to prune a fig tree. It’s important to note that Raik has A LOT of experience both pruning and using a chainsaw. He also knows that fig tree personally since he’s been taking care of it for years. A chainsaw makes quick work but if you can’t control it well you might do more damage than good.
If you feel that it’s an overkill, just use the hand tools and go slow. The chainsaw can still be useful to remove very thick branches.
I’ll also note that if you choose to use a chainsaw you should probably use safety goggles and such. A few people commented below that it’s not safe to do it the way we do. They are probably right. Yet we also ride four-wheelers without a helmet, eat food from the grocery store, and breathe. What can I say… We are wild 😉
A pole saw – a pole saw can be useful if you are pruning a tall tree. I’ve never used it and I can’t imagine being able to control it but I thought that I’d list it here in case you feel that it’s a good idea to try it.
Ladder – depending on the size of your tree, you might need a ladder to climb. Ideally, you’ll be able to keep a tree to a manageable size that can eliminate the need for a ladder, but it’s not always the case.
How to Prune a Fruit Tree…
Now let’s see how it’s actually done… In the picture above is a fig tree before pruning. I think that it hadn’t been pruned in a couple of seasons. You can see that there are many very low branches, A huge secondary trunk that is very close to the ground, and a lot of little shoots everywhere.
I mentioned before that a fig tree can actually grow on a multi-trunk system. However, Raik thought that it would be best to remove the second trunk. It was too low and in a weird angle and showed signs of breaking at its base. If it did break there it would have probably damaged the main trunk and the tree could have been lost. So first, he used the chainsaw to cut it off.
Next, we removed any branches that pointed inward towards the center of the tree…
Keep in mind that you want to promote outward lateral growth. It keeps the tree healthier, there is more airflow, it allows the sunlight to reach the low branches, it’s easier to care for the tree, the fruit is lower and it’s easier to harvest it.
Next, we pruned lower hanging branches (this is another fig tree). You can see that some of the branches are way too close to the ground.
In this picture, you can clearly see the open center form of this tree. You can see the four main scaffold limbs and the secondary scaffolds and shoots that are coming out of them.
Now, the four main scaffolds where growing too tall to the point that it was hard to care for the tree. So we head cut those to keep them from growing any further.
Lastly, some general thinning here and there. There weren’t any dead, diseased, or damaged branches to prune so we concentrated more on small branches, crossing branches, inward growing branches, and so on. In the photo above you can see the tree after pruning.
This is another fig tree that I wanted to include here so you can see how low and small you can keep even full size trees. Keep in mind that this tree is in Israel and in Israel we don’t have deer so we can keep the branches really low. There is no need to use a ladder to care for this tree or in order to pick the fruit.
This is a few years old almond tree. You can clearly see the difference between its form and the form of the fig tree above. This tree has one main central leader and fairly good size, established limbs coming out of it.
Since the central leader was getting too tall and the tree has a few other limbs that could be chosen as the tree’s main scaffold branches, Raik decided to transition this tree to the modified central leader form.
He made a head cut right where his chainsaw is in the picture. This will prevent the main leader from growing any higher and from here on out we will be focusing on the chosen main scaffolds.
This is a Pakistan mulberry tree. Mulberry trees can get so big, but this one was kept rather small so it’s easy to care for. You can clearly see the open center form.
Even though it was kept small, it still produces more mulberries than you’d know what to do with! I made a delicious mulberry jam with the fruit of this tree and then used it to make thumbprint cookies. Oh, I don’t even know how to describe how good this fruit is!
More Information About Growing Fruit Trees…
There is a lot of information on my blog about fruit trees. They are definitely a passion of mine and there is a lot to learn about them. Here is a list of all the posts in case you want to read on…
5 Steps For Choosing the Best Backyard Fruit Trees – choosing the right fruit tree is just as important if not more important than learning how to care for fruit trees. The success of your fruit growing journey starts by choosing the right tree for your growing area. This post will teach you everything that you need to know.
How to Plant Fruit Trees – once you purchased your fruit tree you’ll need to learn how to plant it the right way.
How to Thin Fruit Trees and Why You Should Do It – aside from pruning your fruit tree, did you know that you also need to thin your fruit? This post will explain why and how to do this.
Grafting Fruit Trees – A Step by Step Picture Tutorial – how awesome will it be to learn how to graft fruit trees so you can save a damaged tree or so you can grow a few different fruits on the same tree? Grafting is an old art and there are very few that know how to do it right (also read 4 Techniques For Grafting Fruit Trees).
More Information About Pruning Fruit Trees…
If you want to read and learn some more about pruning fruit trees, here are good articles to visit…
Training and Pruning Your Home Orchard – this is a PDF document from the Pacific Northwest Extension. It has a lot of great information in it.
Pruning Trees and Shrubs – this one is from the university of Minnesota.
Training and Pruning Fruit Trees – another PDF publication. This one is from NC State University. It has a lot of diagrams and pictures that make it easy to understand the text.
I hope that this guide was helpful to you. A whole book can be dedicated to pruning fruit trees but we all know, and I hope agree, that the best way to learn is by doing.
I hope that I gave you a basic understanding of how trees should be pruned and how pruning is done. Now go outside and observe some trees. See if you can determine what is their form, which are their main scaffolds, and what branches can be removed. You’ll be an expert in no time!