How to Prune Fruit Trees to Keep Them Small

Learn how to prune fruit trees to keep them thriving using this revolutionary method. Nearly any deciduous fruit variety can be trained to stay compact.

By Ann Ralph
Updated on May 26, 2022
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by PhotoBotanic/Saxon Holt
After fruit was thinned to 8 inches apart, this 5-year-old tree still produced 84 large apples.

Many fruit trees — including semidwarf varieties — can easily grow to 15 feet and taller. Anyone who has tried to manage one of these large trees in a backyard will instantly appreciate the value of small fruit trees: They require less space, are easy to care for, and produce fruit in manageable quantities. Growing compact trees allows you to tuck more varieties of fruit into corners of your property or a small orchard, and means you can choose those varieties by flavor and climate adaptability rather than by tree size. Nearly any standard and semidwarf tree — from pears, peaches and plums to apples and apricots — can be trained to stay much more compact. Learn how to prune fruit trees to keep them small.

The pruning treatment outlined in this article will create an appreciably smaller fruit tree than what you’re used to — as small as most dwarf trees (see Growing Dwarf Fruit Trees). Here’s the key to this little-known technique: Fruit trees’ reaction to pruning is dependent on the season in which the cuts are made. The trees’ response is determined by whether the tree is actively growing (spring), gathering nutrients (early summer), preparing for dormancy (late summer), or fully dormant (fall and winter). Keep this cycle in mind when wielding your shears.

pruning shears trimming a tree scaffold with small leaves on it

How to Prune Fruit Trees to Keep Them Small: The First Cut

The first step to growing a small fruit tree is to make a hard heading cut (a cut that removes the growing tip) when planting. While such a cut may seem extreme, your planting job will only be complete when you’ve lopped off the top two-thirds of your new tree. This pruning cut is critical because it will create a low scaffold (the primary limbs that make up the canopy of a tree), and making this cut during dormancy will give the tree strength and resilience, which is especially crucial for heavy stone fruits. Most importantly, it will help keep the canopy of the mature tree within arm’s reach.

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