How, When, Why to Prune Fruit Trees

Many people love the idea of having fresh fruit growing in their backyard orchard. For the experienced, maintaining their labor of love is easy. For the inexperienced, they soon realize it’s something more like love to labor.

It’s like raising a child – there are years of training, shaping them for their development, all while warding off pests and diseases that will shorten their lifespan. This work hopefully leads to something that bears good fruit.

Well, maybe raising a child doesn’t require pruning off limbs, thinning out the insides and heading from time to time (although sometimes we’re tempted…….). But your trees do.

So, let’s talk about the basics. Winter is usually the preferred time to trim, as you are priming the tree for spring growth. You can trim during the growth season but remember that could possibly reduce fruit development along with opening up the tree to outside pests and diseases.

Step One: Cleaning up the tree

  • Start with the Three D’s – dead, diseased, and damaged.
  • When pruning, don’t leave stubs. Prune back to the branch collar.
  • Starting at the bottom of the tree, remove ‘suckers’ that are growing at the base.
  • Thin the interior, looking for long, vertical, straight limbs – those are ‘water sprouts’.

Step Two: Thinning out the interior

  • Remove any limbs that are growing toward the interior, crossing other limbs or downward.
  • Remove limbs that have an angle greater than 45 degrees in relation to the limb it’s attached to. The greater the angle, the higher the risk of limb failure under the weight of fruit. Think of a clock face – anything between 10 and 2 is ideal.

Step Three: Heading back the crown

  • Your fruit tree is NOT a shade tree. A tall and wide canopy is not what you need, nor want. You want a canopy height that allows for the safe harvesting of the fruit. If you have a more mature tree that requires the use of a ladder, be careful. Gravity sucks, and it’s not the fall that hurts – it’s the sudden stop.
  • Reduce the height of the crown, heading off 20-35% of last year’s growth, pruning back to an established limb, or better yet, a bud that faces the direction you want a limb to develop.

Think you’re done? Not quite.

Make sure you dispose of all the cuttings to ensure that any diseases that they might contain do not linger around the property. And speaking of diseases – treat your tools in a solution of isopropyl alcohol before moving onto another tree.

And consider using dormant oil. It is a non-toxic spray, applied via a pump sprayer that helps control insects such as scale and mite that can damage the tree. Generally, it is applied in late winter/early spring, but follow the MSDS label for application information.

Not sure if you want to tackle the job? Call one of our certified arborists if you live in our service area. They will know the ins and outs of trimming your trees, whether they fruit or not. They are trained in tree pruning to ANSI standards.

Once you master this, you’ll not look at the trees as next year’s firewood but as this year’s bounty.

Remember the rule when picking – two for the bucket, one for the mouth.

Bon appetite!