How to Prune Fruit Trees
If you have any type of fruiting trees you may have learned the hard way that they are not like regular trees, and they are not even like each other. The basics for any type of pruning is to start by removing any dead, damaged, diseased or crossing branches, always make clean cuts using sharp pruning tools, and it’s generally best to prune to an outward facing bud.
Don’t be afraid if you make a mistake, as long as you don’t prune the tree at the wrong time it will still be healthy and you can try it again the following season.
Pruning Newly Planted Trees
Young fruit trees received from the nursery have several branches. There will also be one to four leaders. Cut off all but one of these leaders. If there are two leaders, they will form narrow V crotches. Such crotches are weak and tend to break in a storm or under heavy crop.
Select the first lowest branch of your tree. It is important that all these lateral branches have wide angles where they join the trunk. New lateral branches will grow from the leader the second year after planting.
Five to eight lateral branches are sufficient for a mature tree. The lateral branches should be spaced 8 to 18 inches apart.
Remove all water sprouts that form on the trunk or lateral branches near the trunk. Except when planting, pruning should be done early in March.
The latest research indicates that pruning does not help overcome transplant shock unless the tree is receiving insufficient water.
Apples and Pears
Most apples and pears bear fruit on permanent fruiting spurs; fruiting spurs are similar in shape to those that grow from a rooster’s legs. They form on wood that is two or more years old. This means that the most important pruning is the establishment of a permanent framework. Once this has been formed, it’s a matter of keeping the center of the tree open, encouraging horizontal branches, removing any crowded growth and cutting back any overly vigorous side branches.
Cut back vigorous vertically growing shoots to the point from which they originate in summer. This is important to maintain an open vase shape, and in the case of pears especially, to control excess growth. The other thing pear trees do is produce too many fruiting spurs. It’s easiest to see these in winter, and this is the time to thin them out by keeping about 6 inches between each spur. You’ll get fewer fruit as a result, but those that are produced will be bigger and tastier.
Peaches and Nectarines
Both of these varieties fruit on wood formed last summer. With that in mind, a major pruning of peaches and nectarines is done every year and completed just after the tree has finished fruiting. Start by identifying fruiting growth by its characteristic cluster of buds, two fruit buds either side of a leaf bud. Cut this back by one half to two thirds. The tree will respond by producing numerous and vigorous side shoots. These should be allowed to grow as they will fruit next spring. In winter, there’s actually very little to do other than the basics: train to a vase shape and thin out any excess lateral growth by pruning right back to a main branch.
Plums and Cherries
The first thing to learn about plum trees is that European plums and Japanese plums are two individual species, each with a different pruning requirement. Japanese plums (Prunus salicina) fruit on last season’s wood, much like a peach tree so you should treat them similarly. European plums (Prunus domestica) form short pointed spurs on two year old wood. They require little pruning other than initial training and a cutting back over vigorous branches to encourage spur formation. Avoid pruning all plums in winter, as they can be susceptible to fungal disease.
Cherries also fruit on short spurs formed on older wood. They differ from plums as they tend to produce just a few main branches. To encourage spur formation, it’s a good idea to prune back hard in the first couple of years after planting to develop a framework of four to six main branches. On these main branches lateral branches will form, and in turn, spurs will form on the laterals. Once the main framework is developed, prune only to maintain a compact size and keep the tree neat.
The most important thing you can do for your apricot tree is to leave it alone while it’s dormant. They are notoriously prone to fungal infections during winter, and other than when first planted; pruning is best performed in autumn, or after the tree has finished fruiting. Apricots are generally heavy bearing trees that form fruit on both last season’s wood on small sprigs, and short spurs on older branches. The easiest way to prune an apricot is to cut all new wood back by half.