February 27, 2020 3 min read

Pruning Fruit Trees

When approaching a pruning project, keep in mind that there are two main purposes to fruit tree pruning, those are:

  1. Keeping the tree healthy and productive.
  2. Maintaining the tree’s beauty.

When to Prune

The best time to prune is when your tree is dormant. Without the leaves in the way it is much easier to see the overall shape of the tree. (We recommend late winter - February to early March.)

Clean, Sharp Tools

Make sure your pruners are sterile and sharp. It’s a good idea to sterilize them between every cut so that you do not spread fungus or bacteria. If every cut is too difficult, make sure to at least clean them when switching between different trees.

Also make sure that you have the right tools for the job. Many people accidentally harm their trees because they use pruners that are too small for a thick branch. With the right tool, as long as it's sharp, you shouldn’t have to use very much force to make each cut.

Cut Direction

Always cut above a bud (give it 1/8 inch of space) that is aimed in the same direction you would like the limb to grow. Hint: choose the bud facing the outside of the tree! Cut at an angle that will allow water to roll off the cut. (For example, do not cut horizontal to the ground.)

Dead and Damaged

Start by pruning out anything dead or damaged. Dead branches will be dry and brittle, not pliable. They will not have any green inside the branch once you cut it. Damage can happen from animals nibbling, disease, branches rubbing together, weather, or many other reasons. Any opening in the bark can leave the tree open to future disease, so it’s better to prune damaged sections off with a clean cut that the tree can more easily heal.

Next, if you see any sprouts coming off the tree from the base, those are suckers. Cut those close to the trunk. Similarly, if you see any branches growing directly vertical, those are water sprouts and should also be pruned. (Water sprouts can be pruned at any time.)

Make your cuts close to the branch they are coming from, outside the branch collar. Do not leave stubs.

Thin Out

Next on the list is to thin out any branches that are not growing in an ideal way. This includes branches that are growing downward, toward the center of the tree, or crossing paths with another branch. It could also include branches that are close in competition with each other, multiple branches growing from the same place, or branches that are clogging up the interior of the tree too much.

If you have multiple branches growing from the same place or if you are deciding between two branches that are too close to each other, keep the one with the best crotch angle. If the angle is too narrow it can cause the tree to get too tall or the branch to split off, too wide can cause the branch to become weak once it is laden with fruit. Aim for a two o’clock or ten o’clock angle from the main branch.

Head Back

Heading the tree back means trimming the tips of branches to cause them to add girth, instead of length. Depending on the size of the tree and how much it grew in the last year, you may be trimming just a few inches or much more. Aim to trim 20 - 30% of the previous year’s growth.

Clean Up

Compost the branches you’ve pruned, but dispose of any branches that show signs of disease.

Dormant Spray

This is also the perfect time to apply dormant spray to protect the tree for the season ahead.

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