Pruning is one of the most important aspects of fruit tree care. If you haven’t pruned your tree in a while, it’s important to schedule some of this TLC.
Your fruit tree should be pruned every year for it to produce and perform at its best. If you don’t prune your fruit tree, you’re leaving it susceptible to disease and over-fruiting, which damages the tree’s health and reduces the quality of fruit. You don’t want that!
While this may seem overwhelming at first – don’t worry – it’s actually quite simple. If this is your first time pruning, don’t be intimidated – the good news is that there’s room for mistakes and your tree will bounce back. Remember, done is better than perfect!
Before you prune you first want to:
- Make sure you’re pruning at the right time of year for your tree. If you want to spur growth, prune your tree in late winter when the tree is still dormant. Fruit that is more susceptible to disease – like stone fruit and cherries, should be pruned in the late summer after fruiting. If it’s raining – don’t prune! Wait until you have a few days of dry weather. Rain can spread disease.
- Get the right tools. We recommend loppers, hand shears, and a hand saw. Make sure the blades are sharp.
- Sterilize your equipment – wipe down your tools with isopropyl alcohol, especially if you plan on pruning multiple trees. This will prevent the spread of any pests of disease.
Ok pretty simple so far right? Let’s get into it.
When pruning, you want to keep in mind the form of your tree. When young, fruit trees are trained to grow in certain shapes that promote the optimal fruit production for that type of tree. There are 3 main forms commonly used for fruit trees:
- Central leader: Picture a Christmas tree. It has a single leader – the trunk – that grows straight up with layered branches called scaffolds growing off the leader in 3 or 4 well placed layers. The top layers are shorter than the bottom layers, creating a pyramid shape.
- Open centre: Vase-shaped with 3 or 4 main limbs growing outward and upward. A vase shape is open in the middle, meaning sunlight can get right into the branches to help that fruit grow.
- Modified Central Leader: This is a hybrid that starts as a central leader and then becomes an open centre.
You may be dealing with a mature tree that has become completely overgrown. When pruning, keep the original shape in mind, and try to make cuts that keep it in line with its original form. For example, if you have an overgrown apricot tree you may want to remove branches that have grown up in the middle to open the canopy and re-establish the open bowl shape so that sunlight can get through.
General Pruning Tips
|Fruit||When to prune||Form||Where the fruit grows|
|Apple||Late winter||Central leader||Spurs on 2 year old wood or older|
|Apricot||Summer||Open Center||1-3 year old stems|
|Sweet Cherry||Sumer||Central Leader||Near the base of 1 year old stems and spurs on older stems|
|Sour Cherry||Late winter||Open Center||1 year old stems and spurs on older stems|
|Pear||Late winter||Central leader||Long lived spurs|
|Plum (European)||Summer||Central Leader||Spurs|
Step 1: Clean Up Your Tree
First, all you need to do is clean up your tree. You got this!
- Follow the 3D rule: remove any dead, damaged or diseased woods.
- See if there are any suckers coming from the base of your tree. If so, remove them.
- Look for straight, vertical sprouts coming from some of the main branches. These perfectly vertical branches called “watersprouts” can be removed as well.
Make sure that your cuts are flush to the larger limb they’re growing from, but avoid cutting right into the collar.
Great you’ve cleaned up your tree! The next step is to make your pruning cuts.
There are two main types of pruning cuts: thinning and heading. Thinning cuts remove cutting an entire branch off at its point of origin. The majority of pruning cuts are thinning cuts.
Heading cuts are like giving your tree a trim. These cuts remove a portion of the branch back to a healthy bud, which can promote more vegetative growth. All cuts need to be made at a 45 degree angle so that water doesn’t collect and promote disease.
Step 2: Thin it Out
The goal of this step is to allow light and air into the canopy to get air circulating and reduce potential problems with pest and disease. You also want sunlight to get to the lower fruiting branches.
Your ultimate goal here is to have nice, evenly spaced branches that splay out nicely from the centre. This means you essentially want to remove anything that’s creating a mess in your nice-looking tree.
Here you want to remember the CAC rule: Remove any Clustering, Acute and Crossing branches.
- Clustering: If multiple branches are competing with one another, thin out all but one branch. You want to keep the healthiest looking branch with the best “crotch angle” from the tree (i.e. an angle of about 45-60 degrees).
- Acute: Acute branches are those that have two sharp angles from the trunk. These are susceptible to snapping once they become laden with fruit. You want lateral growth that will host the most amount of fruit. Ideally you want to keep branches that have at least a 45-60 degree angle.
- Crossing: Remove any branches that are crossing paths with another branch or growing downwards to the centre of the tree or ground.
Continue to thin until there is a good 6 to 12 inches of air space around each branch. Again, remember to keep all your thinning cuts flush to the branch.
Wow, look at you, you pruning pro!
Step 3: Head it Back
In the final step you want to “head back” the tree – aka trimming the outermost growth on the tree (like a haircut). This ensures your branches don’t become too long and gangly.
In this step you’re going to cut off 20-30% of last year’s growth. You can tell where last year’s growth starts by a wrinkly ring of bark on each stem.
These cuts will be made partway into each branch. NOTE: It’s important where you make the cut. You want to cut your branch back to one-quarter inch above an outward growing bud. This ensures it will grow outwards, instead of inwards. Make the cut in a 45 degree angle in the same direction as the bud. Why 45 degrees? This ensures water runs off the cut, and doesn’t pool where it can lead to disease.
On your branches you have fruit buds (these produce blossoms), and wood buds (these produce leafy growth). Wood buds in apples and pears are thin and pointed. Fruit buds are plump and stubby, and as they get older they form spurs (a mini compressed stem).
Ok, that was a lot right? It’s ok!
You should feel confident to:
- Prune to completely remove dead, damaged and diseased limbs (the 3Ds)
- Prune to completely remove limbs that are crowing inward to the centre of the tree or crossing and rubbing against another branch (CAC rule)
- Prune to completely remove tree suckers and watersprouts whenever they appear – not just when the tree is dormant
- Use your heading cuts to prune ⅓ of new growth from the growing season (not ⅓ of the tree’s overall branching)
Avoid these pruning mistakes:
- Don’t remove more than 25% of the tree per year. Otherwise it will try to repair the damage by producing too much new growth. Dead and damaged wood doesn’t count in the 25%.
- Don’t go overboard on old fruit trees. Yes, they’re probably a mess. You may need to prune slowly over 1-3 years. In year 1 focus on the 3Ds. In year 2, follow the CAC rule to reduce congestion and start shaping the tree, and in Year 3 you can focus on fine-tuning and using the heading cuts.
- Don’t “top” your tree. This means cutting off the tree’s top in an attempt to reduce the height. This will only cause excessive sucker growth.
- Don’t cut into the collar of branches. The “collar” is where the branch attaches to the tree’s trunk. If you cut into the collar it may lead to decay spreading into the tree’s trunk. Also make sure you’re not cutting too far, as the tissue will die and delay the wound closure. You want it flush to the branch without going into the collar.
- Try not to damage or rip the bark when cutting. Avoid dull tools, properly cut large branches so they don’t rip under their weight when falling.
- Don’t put yourself at risk! If your tree is tall it will require the help of a Certified Arborist to do the job safely. You do want to make sure you find an arborist who understands pruning for fruit production.
For more pruning tips directly related to each type of tree, refer to our Fruit Ripening Guide.
Here are some extra resources that may be helpful:
- Read: How to prune old, neglected apple trees
- Watch: How to Prune Young Apple Trees
- Watch: How to Rejuvenate Old Apple Trees
- Watch: How to Prune an Apricot Tree
- Watch: Pruning Pears: A Best Case Scenario & Worst Case Scenario