Walking through my family’s backyard orchard, I would often see water bottles hanging off some of the branches and become very perplexed. It looked almost as if the tree was bearing water bottles instead of fruit. After talking to my dad, he explained that this was part of the training process so that the branches would grow at 45-60 degree angles. I later learned more why pruning and maintaining a certain structure in a tree is so important. So I hope this guide about how to prune fruit trees is also helpful for you all, especially if it is your first time growing these wonderful trees.
Why Prune Fruit Trees
- We prune fruit trees for four main reasons.
- First, to make the tree easy to maintain and harvest by controlling the height and shape.
- Secondly, to maintain a healthy tree by removing dead, diseased or damaged wood.
- Thirdly, to improve air circulation which reduces pests and diseases.
- Fourthly, to let sunlight reach the fruits so they can grow healthy and large.
When to Prune Fruit Trees
- You should prune most fruit trees (except for sweet cherries) when they are still dormant, this means early spring, about two weeks after the late frost. Not only are the buds easier to see and cut, but the cuts will also heal more quickly.
- Another optimal time to prune is during mid-summer when the leaves reach their full size. In fact, for sweet cherries this is the optimal time since they are more susceptible to getting fungal and bacterial diseases on the cut limbs. However, pruning in the summer may slow the growth which can be desirable for some trees and undesirable on others. Additionally when you prune in the summer, this may decrease decay potential.
- If you prune in the fall, then new growth will start but will be damaged by the cold winter. If you prune in the early winter, then the open cut can be susceptible to diseases.
- If you see dead, diseased, or damaged, wood, you should cut these off as soon as you notice, no matter the time in the year so that the tree isn’t damaged any further.
- Prune during a dry day with sterilized equipment to minimize the risk of the tree getting a disease.
- Lastly, wait to do the heavy pruning in the third year of growth after planting since this will allow the tree to establish itself. When there is a lot of pruning to do, then space out the pruning over several seasons.
What to Prune Fruit Trees With
- The tools to use depends on which type of branch you are cutting. In all cases though, be sure to sterilize the tools with hot soapy water or disinfectant to prevent any damage or infection. Moreover make sure they are sharp so that the branches don’t get bruised.
- For small branches and twigs, use hand pruners.
- For large branches about 1” thick, use loppers. These provide good leverage.
- For branches about 3” thick and more, use a saw.
How to Prune Fruit Trees
Step 1: Choose Which Training System You Will Be Pruning For
- There are three forms that you can prune and train your trees for. Certain fruit trees bear fruit more easily and abundantly with a certain form. However, some fruit trees can also be trained in almost any way.
CENTRAL LEADER FORM
- The central leader form has one central leader from which the other scaffold branches grow. It also has a pyramidal shape, which is wider at the base and narrower at the top. Consequently, it is very study and allows for great productivity. However this form can make the tree taller than most growers can manage.
- This form is great for apple, pear, persimmon & pecan trees.
MODIFIED CENTRAL LEADER FORM
- The modified central leader form is a mixture of the central leader and open center form and has lateral branches with the central leader’s top removed. Consequently, it has all the advantages of the other two forms. For example, a sturdy trunk, central light, easier to harvest, and with stronger branches than an Open tree.
- This form is great for almond, apple, apricot, cherry, fig, nectarine, olive, peach, pear, pecan, persimmon, plum, pluot, pomegranate & walnut trees.
OPEN CENTER FORM
- The open center or vase form doesn’t have a central leader so it allows sunlight to enter. However, this form can have weaker branches and more shade from the leaves of the upper branches.
- This form is great for almond, apricot, cherry, fig, nectarine, olive, peach, pear, persimmon, plum & pomegranate trees.
Step 2: Prune With Your Chosen Training System
Central Leader Training System
- After you planting, the form should have one vertical leader with about four evenly spaced scaffold branches around it. If two scaffold branches are too close to one another, remove one.
- However if there aren’t great scaffold branches, then you can stimulate their growth by cutting back to 30 inches and removing the lateral branches.
- During the first growing season in late June-early July, you can train the branches so that they are 45-60 degrees from the leader.
- In the spring of the second season, you can remove any competing leaders.
- Then, in the spring of the third season, prune the branches into a pyramidal form.
- When the tree is established, you can decrease the height by cutting back the central leader to a lateral branch. This will also promote the growth of another leader.
Modified Central Leader Training System
- Training in this form is similar to training for a central leader. However after 2-3 levels of scaffold branched have developed, cut the leader back to the closest scaffold branch.
- Or instead of cutting the leader back, you can bend it with weights so that it becomes another scaffold branch.
Open Center Training System
- Since the tree may not have evenly spaced three or four branches which are 26 to 30 inches from the ground, you can prune the leader back to 30 inches above the soil surface and remove the other lateral branches.
- In the first growing season, prune non-primary scaffold branches so that there are 3 or 4 primary scaffold branches evenly spaced around the trunk.
- Then, during the spring of the second season, cut back scaffold branches.
- In the early spring of the third growing season, prune the scaffold branches.
Step 3: Remove Any Dead, Diseased, or Damaged Limbs (3 D’s)
- You know if a branch is dead if it’s brittle and breaks very easily.
- You usually know if a branch is diseased if the wood is a different color than the other branches around it.
- You’ll see a damaged branch when it has partially broken from the weight of the fruits. Additionally, when two branches have crossed and rubbed against one another this can also damage the wood.
- Once you have identified the branches with the 3 D’s, then cut the wood back to the nearest bud where the wood is still healthy.
Step 4: Prune Suckers
What is a sucker?
- Suckers are thin shoots or branches which grow near the base of the trunk. They grow because the tree is attempting to grow more branches possibly as a response to an injury.
- Prune the suckers so that they don’t grow below the canopy of the tree.
Step 5: Prune Downward, Upward, & Inward Growing Branches
- First, identify the branches growing downward. Then prune them since they won’t be able to bear the weight of the fruit. Additionally upward growing branches may damage other branches so prune them as well.
- Also prune any branches growing inward so that they don’t rub against other branches.
Step 6: Prune the Whorls
What are whorls?
- Whorls are places where three or more small branches grow from the same location. Once you identify the whorls then choose the healthier and strongest one, and prune the rest. After all, the branch won’t be able to support all of the small branches growing in this one location.
Step 7: Prune Back All Branches
During your regular pruning, it is good for the tree to have the branches cut back by a third. Consequently, the stems will become thicker and develop flowers. However, make sure to make these cuts just above a bud that faces outward.
Step 8: Thin the Buds
- Lastly, thin out the fruiting buds so that they are 4-6” apart. This will ensure that the branch bears just enough weight from the fruit. Additionally, if there are too many fruiting buds, then the fruit may not develop their high sugar levels.