Pruning Fruit Trees

Pruning Fruit Trees

Pruning Fruit Trees

When approaching a pruning project, keep in mind that there are two main purposes to fruit tree pruning: Keeping a tree healthy and productive and maintaining its beauty.

The best time to prune is when your tree is dormant. Without leaves in the way, it is much easier to see the overall shape of the tree. We recommend the winter months, beginning in mid-January and stretching to mid-March. If you plan to apply an organic pest control regimen in the winter, it is a good idea to prune your trees first.

The Importance of Sharp, Clean Tools

Make sure your pruners are clean and sharp. It’s a good idea to sterilize them between every cut using isopropyl alcohol to reduce the chance of accidentally spreading any fungi or bacteria. If sterilizing between every cut is too labor intensive, you should make sure to at least clean your tools when switching between different trees.

It's also important to ensure that you have the right tools for the job. Hand pruners can be used for making small cuts, but larger cuts should be made with loppers or long-handled tree pruners when working higher-up. Many people accidentally harm their trees because they use pruners that are too small to effectively cut 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.

Making a Cut

Always cut above a bud — leaving about 1/8 inch of space — that is aimed in the 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.)

Pruning Methods

Dead and Damaged

Start by pruning out any branches that are dead or damaged. Dead branches will be dry and brittle rather than pliable. (If you aren't sure if a branch has died, you can make a light scratch in the bark; a living branch will reveal a layer of green.) Damage can happen from nibbling animals, diseases, branches rubbing together, weather, or a variety of other reasons. Any opening in the bark can leave the tree vulnerable to future disease, so it’s better to prune damaged sections off with a clean cut that the tree can more easily heal.

Next, inspect the base of your tree. Any suckers you notice can be cut off close to the trunk. Similarly, any branches growing vertically upward can be trimmed off. These are known as water sprouts, and they 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.

Thinning Out

Next on the list is to thin out any branches that are growing in a less-than-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 and preventing air flow.

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 — the angle of the branch's connection point with the rest of the tree. If this angle is too narrow it can cause the tree to get too tall or the branch to split off. If it is too wide, it can also cause the branch to become weak once it is laden with fruit. You want to aim for a two o’clock or ten o’clock angle from the main branch.

Heading 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 has grown over 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.

Cleaning Up

Finally, you should compost the branches you’ve pruned, unless they show signs of disease, in which case they should be disposed of.

In addition to the resources offered here and across our blog, Cornell Farm has many fantastic, knowledgeable team members that are here to answer your gardening questions. Simply stop by and ask! Additionally, we would also love to see pictures of your backyard orchards. Feel free to share a photo on our Facebook page or email us a photo at You just might be featured!