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When should I prune my fruit trees?


For most fruit growers, pruning for tree health happens in winter. There are some pruning activities done during the growing season, but heavy pruning carries a significant risk of spreading diseases via open cuts. Pruning while trees are dormant avoids those risks. It also increases the vigor of a tree, so that, come spring, it will start to grow much more. With young trees, that’s what you want, but with established trees, you might take care to limit the number of cuts, to avoid too much vigor.

Pruned cuts can be susceptible to damage from extreme cold and dry conditions. It’s a good idea to wait as late in the winter as possible. But growers with hundreds of trees need to start early in the season and hope for the best. On our orchard, with about 10 acres of semi-dwarf trees, we start pruning in January or February.

There are several reasons for pruning fruit trees, and in most cases, trees should be pruned every year. For optimal tree health and fruit production, pruning is important for removing old or dead wood, as well as establishing and maintaining an appropriate tree shape. Young trees will need more attention, and more established trees might need just a little bit of work.

Growers who have older trees that have been neglected will need to take a careful approach to pruning. It is safe to remove up to one third of the wood from a tree each year. With a really out-of-control tree, it may be tempting to do more, but it’s better to think of it as a multi-year project. Think about how much you can take off at once, and then consider what next year’s cuts will include.

When setting out, it’s important to keep pruning goals in mind:

  • In nearly all cases, a strong vertical trunk, or “central leader” is important to identify in the first years, and maintain that through pruning.
  • For young trees (1-3 years), you will be establishing the form the tree will take, including selecting scaffold limbs. These are the main fruiting branches of your tree, and you want to make sure that they are well-spaced and growing in distinct directions. For a semi-dwarf tree, that probably means four or five limbs, each pointing a different way.
  • As trees grow, winter pruning is the time to make sure continued growth conforms to that shape.
  • Once trees are five or more years old, start thinking about renewal, and look for new branches you can encourage to grow.
  • Sunlight is essential for fruit production. Remove branches that are shading or crowding one another.
  • Some trees (especially pears) have a strong tendency to grow vertically with their branches pointing straight up to the sun. This reduces fruiting. The ideal angle for fruiting branches is 45 degrees from the trunk, so select those that are inclined to grow the way you want.

Sharp, high quality tools are essential to good pruning. While some old trees might require occasional chainsaw work, most pruning is done with three tools:

  • Hand-held pruners. You’ll be making many cuts with these, often in quick succession, so it’s important to have one that’s sized correctly and is comfortable to use. A rotating handle can help ease repetitive stress for some people. A bypass-style blade makes cleaner cuts than an anvil-type blade.
  • Like pruners with long handles, these are available in various lengths. The long handles allow greater leverage, while the two-handed grip allows a wider opening, so you can use loppers for much larger and tougher branches.
  • Pruning saw, sometimes called a limb saw. Look for one with a short to medium-length blade, as you may need to use it for cuts in tight spaces. A straight blade is also generally more effective for tree pruning than a curved one.

There are many online, print, and video resources for learning to prune trees. One favorite of mine is Cornell’s Cooperative Extension five-page PDF , because it is easy to follow and thorough. But there are many others and most contain similar, useful tips and information. When using any guide or demonstration, be sure to consider if the source is in similar growing conditions. Particulars of plant care can vary greatly based on the expected cold temperatures in the winter, amount of rainfall, and soil type. So, if your trees are in Wisconsin, don’t follow a pruning video from California. When in doubt, your local extension office will likely have some resources—even if they are just geared for gardens or homeowners, the principles are the same!

Posted: Mar 2019
Answer By: Rachel Henderson