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Pruning Fruit Trees for Fruit

Prune fruit treeFruit trees can be grown for fruit or shade. If you are growing a fruit tree for shade, pruning is not necessary. If you are growing a fruit tree for fruit, you should prune.

A fruit tree that goes unpruned will produce fruit, but in all likelihood, the fruit will be smaller and less flavorful than fruit that is grown on a pruned tree.

Reasons to Prune Fruit Trees

Here are reasons to prune a fruit:

  • Prune to keep the tree small and manageable. Prune a fruit tree so that fruit can be harvested without a ladder. Keep a fruit tree small enough to throw bird netting over the top. Prune so that you can reach the highest fruit by simply reaching up.
  • Prune to keep branches from growing long and droopy. Prune to keep branches from touching the ground or hanging over a fence or roof. Long, droopy branches can easily break when loaded with fruit or battered by wind. Branches that grow over fences or on rooftops are difficult to harvest.
  • Prune to keep the center of the tree open; this will allow the sun to reach and ripen all of the fruit on the tree. Dense foliage in the center of the tree will result in small fruit that is less flavorful. Lack of sun can also cause foliage dieback in the center of the tree.
  • Prune to remove broken, dead, and diseased branches. Prune to remove branches that rub against each other; broken and damaged branches are susceptible to disease and pest attack.
  • Prune to limit the number of flowers and fruit. Too many blooms can result in too many fruits. Heavy fruit set can mean a lot of small fruit with large pits and little flesh. Trees that flower heavily and set a large amount of fruit tend to exhaust themselves; this can result in alternate bearing—that is a heavy crop one year and little or no fruit the next.
  • Prune to remove suckers and water sprouts. Suckers are shoots that grow from the base of the tree or roots; water sprouts are long straight shoots that grow from limbs; they usually do not bear fruit but simply crowd the center of the tree and fruit-bearing branches.

When to Prune

  • Prune or pinch off soft, new growth any time during the year. Pinch away new growth to maintain the tree’s shape. Pinch or prune off water sprouts or suckers as soon as they appear. Suckers and water sprouts take energy away from fruit production; prune or pinch at any time.
  • Deciduous fruit trees are commonly pruned before spring growth before the tree begins to leaf out. Pruning just before spring growth begins allows you to see the tree’s branches clearly. Midwinter (January in the northern hemisphere) is when a deciduous tree will be most dormant; that is the time to prune.
  • Finish pruning deciduous fruit trees before buds start to swell in early spring. Buds swell when tree sap begins to move in the tree. If the sap is active, pruned wood will drip sap.
  • Delay pruning if you are not sure which spring buds are leaf buds and which buds are fruit buds. If you delay a week or so, you can tell the difference. Leaf buds are thin; fruit buds become plump and roundish.
  • Prune after harvest. Deciduous fruit trees can be pruned in summer or autumn after a harvest. Remove center shoot growth that shades larger fruit-bearing branches. Prune shoots as thick as a pencil or thicker. Prune out center growth that shades fruit-bearing wood over a two or three-week period gradually exposing the center of the tree to increase sun.

Fruit Tree Pruning Strategy

Trees Less Than Four Years Old

  • Prune to create a strong branch system; prune to create a strong framework. Pruning in the first four years centers on developing a strong system of branches.
  • Cut newly planted deciduous fruit trees to 9 inches above the graft or bud union. This initial pruning will leave little more than a stub in the ground. This short stump will become the foundation for a fruit tree that can be harvested by hand without the use of a ladder.
  • Side branches will form just below the cut. These first framework branches eventually will be not much more than 1 foot or so above the ground.
  • Side branches will be thinned to three strong shoots evenly spaced around the tree and also spaced up and down the trunk separated by four inches or more. Looking down on the tree from above these young structural branches will be evenly spaced like the spokes of an umbrella.
  • Allow structural branches to grow unimpeded for the first year. The second spring, trim these branches back to about 18 inches. These will become the tree’s framework branches. In time they will grow branches of their own, secondary branches.
  • Second-year branches will become fruit-bearing. These branches will be pruned in winter each year to develop more fruiting wood.
  • Third and fourth year, prune to establish and maintain the shape of the tree. Prune to keep the tree from growing too large.
  • Pruning results in increased twiggy growth; twiggy growth can crowd the center of the tree. Prune away congested twiggy growth and shoots. Inner branches that do not get light will not produce viable fruit. Fruit-bearing wood at the center of the tree must get sunlight. Prune congested twiggy and shoot growth lightly in summer.

Trees Older Than Four Years

  • Prune to maintain the tree’s shape and size.
  • Prune back new growth by one-third each year to maintain size.
  • Remove broken, dead, and diseased wood. When removing diseased wood, cut back well into healthy wood.
  • Prune away suckers growing from the base of the plant and water sprouts growing vertically from branches. Remove these when you first spot them at any time of the year.
  • Prune to keep the center of the tree from becoming crowded. Cutaway shoots or branches that are crossing or rubbing.
  • If a pruning cut to remove diseased wood reveals a deeper infection, cut deeper until no sign of infections is evident.

Peach and Nectarine: Fruit and Leaf Buds and Pruning

  • Thin buds are leaf buds.
  • Fat buds are flowers or fruit buds.
  • Flower and fruit buds tend to develop on branches that are a pinkish color.
  • Greenish wood or shoots are last year’s growth.
  • Single buds on one-year-old green wood can bear fruit. A tree should not have too many green shoots; it should bear most of the fruit on pinkish wood.
  • Pinkish colored wood is two years old. Triple buds develop on two-year-old wood; two buds are thin leafy buds; one bud is fat—a fruiting bud. Fruit develops on pinkish two-year-old wood.
  • A single, narrow bud at the end of a twig will produce leaves; further back you will find triple buds. Triple buds develop two leaves and a flower in the center. Further back on the twig or wood is old wood that will not produce fruit unless it is cut back and sends out new shoots.
  • Dark-colored three-year-old wood will not develop fruit.
  • If a tree is covered thickly with flower buds and all are pollinated, the fruit will be small. It is best to pinch off buds so the remaining buds are evenly spaced by 6 inches or so.
  • Peaches and nectarines are vigorous growers, remove half of the pink wood where there are triple buds, especially if there has bee a lot of shoot growth.
  • Remove branches that grow too tall or rangy.

Apples and Pears: Fruit and Leaf Buds and Pruning

  • Thin buds are leaf buds.
  • Fat buds are flowers or fruit buds.
  • Young apples and pears produce flowers and fruit on the ends of new growth.
  • Cut most shoots back on young trees to keep them small and manageable. New side shoots will grow from these shoots; these side shoots will flower at the ends also.
  • As shoots or twigs mature into branches, short stubby side shoots called “spurs” begin to grow. Spurs are the flower and fruiting shoots. Spurs last for four or five years. Do not prune or damage spurs. Spurs produce fruit.
  • You can encourage spur development by pruning the ends of vigorous, two-year-old, upright shoots. When the end of a shoot is cut, side growth will develop.
  • Some apple varieties tend to bear fruit only the end of shoots other varieties don’t flower at the end of the shoot and bear only on spurs. You may need to observe the tree’s flowering habit for a year or more to determine where it will flower and bear fruit.
  • Pear trees grow more slender and angular than apple trees; young trees have bear terminal flowers; older trees flower more on spurs. Cut back tall growth on pears.
  • When possible, prune to keep most of the spurs on the inside of the tree where the fruit will be shaded from direct sun.

Cherry and Apricot: Fruit and Leaf Buds and Pruning

  • Thin buds are leaf buds.
  • Fat buds are flowers or fruit buds.
  • Flower and fruit buds tend to develop on last year’s growth.
  • Unlike peaches, cherry and apricot wood do not turn from green to pink to dark brown or gray; there is no color change as the wood gets older it remains a dark brown.
  • Short side shoots called spurs begin to develop on second-year wood; spurs remain on twigs as they turn into branches. Spurs grow 3-inches long and live for three years.
  • Spurs are fruit-bearing; do not remove fruit-bearing twigs or spurs.
  • Flowers and fruit are borne on the sides of one-year-old twigs and on spurs growing on two- and three-year-old wood.

Pruning Citrus Trees

  • Citrus is not deciduous; it is evergreen. Citrus can be pruned at any time of the year.
  • Citrus trees require little pruning. Prune to maintain size and shape.
  • Prune citrus by walking around the tree and pinching or clipping out terminal growth; this will keep the tree from becoming rangy. Pinch or clip back terminal growth in spring and summer.
  • Cut back long branches that have no side shoots. This will stimulate side shoots.
  • Citrus flowers and fruits on side shoots.
  • Oranges, mandarins, and grapefruit require almost no pruning apart from topping the tree to keep it from growing too tall. Top trees in spring or winter after harvest.
  • Lemons develop a lot of interior shoot growth; prune this growth back as it appears to keep the interior of the tree from becoming crowded.

Pruning Tools

  • Always use sharp tools.
  • Disinfect your tools between cuts particularly if you are removing diseased wood.
  • Hand pruners are used for small twigs and shoots not thicker than a pencil.
  • Loppers are used for shoots and branches thicker than your thumb; if you have to strain to cut a branch with a lopper, use a pruning saw.
  • Scissor-type pruners make a slicing cut and will not bruise the wood.
  • Anvil-type pruners crush wood and bark; use anvil pruners to remove deadwood.
  • Pruning saws are used for larger cuts. Use a pruning saw with a narrow blade for a close cut. The teeth of a pruning saw bite or cut on the pull stroke.
  • Pruning paint is used to seal the ends of cut branches. Pruning paint will keep disease organisms from entering the tree; it will also keep the cut from drying out. Many horticulturists do not use pruning paint but allow the cut to heal naturally.

Also of interest:

Young Fruit Tree Training and Pruning

Apple Pruning

Pear Pruning

Citrus Tree Pruning

Thinning Apples

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8 Comments

  1. That’s good to know that you should top an orange tree to make sure it doesn’t; get too tall. I could see how that would help it to grow out instead of up and make it a lot easier to get the fruit. I should see if I could get someone to do that for me since I don’t have the equipment to reach the top of the tree, but I want it to grow properly.

  2. Hi Steve, you have given the amazing reasons to prune the fruit trees. I own a fruit tree farm and since the trees are unmanageable now I had an idea of getting them pruned from the professionals. I am glad that I came across this article and will prune the trees in a way that it gets easy to harvest the fruits. Cheers!!

  3. I found it helpful when you explained that it is important to delay pruning when you are unsure what kind of bud is growing on your tree. My wife and I are wanting to plant some apple trees in our yard, but we are unfamiliar with basic care so we don’t want to hurt them by cutting the wrong branches off.

  4. Hello Steve
    I have a lemon tree in a pot that I bought last year and unfortunately I guess I pruned it too much ,it started to lose its leaves and I was sure it’s going to die .this spring it started developing like little leaves on the trunk and on few of the branches (I googled and found out that these are called “Water Shoots of Water sprouts”
    my question is can water shoots turn into normal branches if left of the bare lemon tree.

    • Water sprouts at the base of the trunk should be trimmed away. Allow sprouts further up the trunk to develop; eventually, you can prune above sprouts that are growing outward. This will take a year or two. You may want to get another tree in the meantime.

  5. Thank you so much for this very informative article! I am new to fruit tree pruning our very old neglected peach tree. We had a great crop last year. Alas, the squirrels enjoyed them all. This year we are tenting with mesh netting in hopes it will help.

  6. I just wanted to say I enjoyed reading your article on pruning fruit trees. You are so knowledgeable and it was great to hear about this topic from someone who knows what they are talking about! I’m a fan of pruning and landscaping as well.

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