Fruit Tree Pruning Basics

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw
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by Unsplash/Peter Keller

Many people feel that fruit tree pruning is too complex a task to be done by amateurs, but when we amateurs learn a few basic concepts, we can keep our fruit trees healthy, well-shaped and bearing excellent fruit. It’s simple: Learn the two basic pruning cuts, get equipped with good tools and keep in mind your long-term goals when pruning.

Purposes for Fruit Tree Pruning

Fruit trees grow whether we prune them or not, but a properly pruned fruit tree has a much better chance of avoiding diseases and giving bountiful and beautiful fruit. Pruning keeps fruit trees healthy by removing diseased limbs, crowded branches or branches that grow with narrow angles.

Pruning also maximizes the quality of fruit by controlling the number of fruit buds. This allows each fruit to reach maximum size without their weight breaking branches. Pruning dense outer branches allows fruit buds to avoid fungal diseases by providing them plenty of sunlight and breeze.

Finally, pruning is critical to maintain the size and shape fruit trees you want. A tree’s rootstalk largely determines each fruit tree’s potential size — whether it is a dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard tree. However, annual pruning is also crucial in determining a fruit tree’s ultimate size as well as its shape.

Basic Tree Shapes

The two basic shapes for fruit trees are either the central-leader or the open-center, also called a “vase-shaped” tree. The central-leader tree will create a smaller tree with less fruit, but easily allows sunlight to all branches. The open-center shape allows a tree to grow larger, but the upper canopy must be kept pruned to allow sunlight and air to reach the center.

It’s best to envision the basic shape you want for your fruit tree the year you plant it because you’ll begin then with gentle pruning. When choosing between a central-leader and vase-shape, consider not only how much elbow room your tree will have when mature, but the type and character of your tree. For example, pear trees naturally assume a central-leader shape but peach trees seem to insist on an open center. One apple tree may easily form a central-leader, while another seems destined to be vase-shaped. Your pruning ultimately determine a tree’s shape, but your work is easier when you allow a tree to express its individuality.

Tools for Fruit Tree Pruning

Good pruning tools are important to avoid damaging your fruit trees or frustrating yourself. Basic hand-shears are necessary for the youngest trees. As fruit trees grow in size, you’ll want to add pruning loppers and a pruning hand saw.

The best pruning tools are made by Felco. It’s not a surprise that they are made in Switzerland where quality knives are also made. Good hardware stores carry Felco bypass pruners and Felco loppers. They can also be found at This online site is helpful in explaining what pruners will best fit your hand. Felco’s sharpening tool is also necessary to keep your tools working well.

When to Prune Fruit Trees

Fruit tree pruning takes place during the winter and very early spring, when fruit trees are dormant. For growing Zone 6 and above, late winter is the best time to begin pruning. Start your pruning with apple trees so you can delay pruning the more cold-sensitive trees, like peaches, until late March or into April. Pruning should be completed before fruit buds show their first pink.

The exceptions to this completion date are the unwanted growths of watersprouts and suckers. Watersprouts are often caused by stress and are recognized by growing vertically off their parent-branch. Suckers grow up at the base of the tree from below the graft line. Both deplete fruit tree’s resources and should be pruned off when they appear.

Basic Cuts of Fruit Tree Pruning: The Thinning Cut and Heading Cut

Thinning cuts remove entire branches or limbs. This cut is made just beyond the “collar,” or circular bark, at the base of the branch you’re removing. A tree heals over this cut area if the collar is not injured and if a stub is not left extending beyond the collar. This thinning cut is used to remove branches that are crowded, diseased or weak.

When branches are still small, the thinning cut is also used to remove any that have narrow-angles. Maintaining branches at 10 and 12 o’clock angles will give them the best strength. Finally, use the thinning cut to eliminate any branches that grow towards the center of the tree.

Heading cuts are made just after a bud and are used to change the direction a limb is growing or to shorten it. It is also used to stimulate the buds just before the heading cut so they will grow out into branches the following year. Make your heading cut at a 45-degree angle and about ¼-inch beyond an outward-facing bud.

How Much to Prune Annually

A good rule is to not prune more than 1/3 of any tree annually so you don’t damage its long-term health. When pruning an older neglected tree, it may therefore take three to five years to get it to the shape and size you want. Some trees, like peaches, are such vigorous growers that they require a fourth of their growth to be removed each spring. Young trees should be only gently pruned, but removing unwanted growth when it is still small benefits fruit trees in the long-term.

Fruit trees do survive our mistakes as we learn to prune, so feel confident in pruning with these few basic concepts as your guide. You’ll not only have healthy fruit trees and fruit, but will gradually become a confident and competent fruit tree pruner.

Mary Lou Shaw, a retired physician who emphasized preventive medicine, is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair help preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. They have a large garden and orchard, Dorking chickens, Narragansett turkeys, Dutch Belted cows and bees. Buy Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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