Cherry Tree Pruning: How And When To Trim A Cherry Tree

Man Pruning Branches Of A Cherry Tree
pruning cherry
(Image credit: vallefrias)

All fruiting trees need to be pruned and cherry trees are no exception. Whether sweet, sour, or weeping, knowing when to prune a cherry tree and knowing the correct method for cutting back cherries are valuable tools. So, if you want a cherry tree that will provide maximum fruit production, ease of harvest and care, and is aesthetically pleasing in appearance, you'll need to prune your tree. The question is what is the proper method for cherry tree pruning? Let's talk cherry tree pruning care.

Why Trim a Cherry Tree?

Pruning cherries, or any fruit tree for that matter, is of paramount importance. The primary reason for trimming cherry trees is to ensure the most optimal access to sunlight. Cherry tree pruning allows for aeration, allowing light channels to penetrate the tree, allowing a better fruit set, ease of harvest, and the ability to battle or thwart disease. 

So in essence, when you trim a cherry tree back, it will be allowed to develop a proper form, yielding higher quality fruit earlier in its life and remaining healthier overall. Trees that have been improperly pruned or trained tend to have upright branch angles, which may lead to limb damage under heavy fruit production.

When to Prune a Cherry Tree

The rule of thumb when pruning fruit trees is to do so when the tree is dormant during the winter. However, cutting back sweet cherries is an exception to this rule. Sweet cherries are more susceptible to fungal and bacterial diseases, especially on recently cut limbs, so it is best to prune them in the late summer. 

Keep in mind that summer pruning reduces the tree's energy for fruit production as well as its growth, so this should be minimal using only thinning cuts. Thinning cuts are those which remove an entire shoot, branch, or limb up to the point of its origin and do an excellent job of opening up the canopy. 

Dormant pruning is a more aggressive pruning. When a large portion of the tree is removed during the dormant season, the energy reserves of the tree remain unchanged. The timing of dormant season pruning is critical, and should begin as late in the winter as feasible to avoid injuring the tree. Sour and weeping fruit trees may be pruned at this time once the risk of winter frost has passed.

Early spring is also prime time for pruning young cherry trees, shaping and training the young tree before it blossoms. Pruning should begin as buds emerge, but wait until all chance of extreme cold temperatures have passed to avoid possible cold injury, as younger trees are more susceptible to this. Mature cherries can be pruned in early spring too, or after they bear fruit.

How to Prune a Cherry Tree

The tools needed to trim a cherry tree back include: a hand pruner, long handled lopping shears, and a pruning saw. Bypass pruners are better than anvil; they can get a closer pruning job done than anvil pruners. 

The number one task in cherry tree pruning care, actually prior to pruning any bearing tree, is to sterilize your pruning tools. This is to prevent the potential spread of disease from other plants to the cherry. You can wipe the blades down with rubbing alcohol and a rag or mix a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water and then rinse with clean water and dry.

How to Prune Cherry Trees When Young

Young cherry trees should be pruned into an open vase-like shape to allow for light and air penetration which increases the number of blooms, hence an abundant fruit set. 

First, cut the suckers off the trunk of the tree and any shoots from limbs that are pointing towards the trunk of the tree as well as any weak branches. All of these are rather pointless shoots that strive to take nutrients from the areas of the tree you want them to go. Cutting them also serves to increase air circulation. Cut the sucker right outside the branch collar, the raised area where the stem meets the trunk. Also, cut any obviously dead, diseased, or broken branches. 

Head the tree in fall or winter, an exception to the above rule. A heading cut is the removal of part of a shoot, branch, or limb, up to one-third to one-half its length. If you head in the spring, you will be lopping off developed buds, potential fruit. Heading means cutting off the top of the leader, the central trunk to encourage growth of the lateral branches. This is done within the first year or two to control the tree's shape. Be sure the sapling is well over 30 inches (76 cm.) tall before heading it.

Make a 45-degree angle cut on the leader, leaving the tree 24 to 36 inches (61-92 cm.) tall. In the subsequent year, begin creating a scaffold whorl, a set of four lateral branches extending out from the tree which provides a solid stricter. Choose four sturdy, evenly spaced branches to keep and prune out the others.

Opt for limbs that are at a 45 to 60-degree angles to the leader and at least 8 inches (20 cm.) apart vertically from the lowest branch about 18 inches (46 cm.) above the ground. Cut those four branches back to 24 inches (61 cm.) with one-fourth inch angled cuts above the buds. This is where new growth will emerge.

Continue to make clean cut flush against the leader to remove the remaining branches. The following year, create a second scaffold whorl. The tree will be taller now, so select another set of four branches to keep about 2 feet (61 cm.) higher than the first set. Choose branches that don't fall over the older primary limbs. Repeat as above to create a second scaffold.

Pruning Mature Cherries

Once the tree is three years old, it's time to promote outward growth by pruning out new vertical limbs. At this point you will need loppers or pruning saws, not shears. Again, clean the tools prior to use. Also, prune out any dead or diseased limbs and dead fruit. Cut back any suckers at the base of the tree. Remove any crossed branches. 

Cherries are prone to disease, so be sure to clean up all the discarded remnants. Also, cover all cuts with a tree sealant to fend off disease. In summary, when you prune cherries, remember your goal. You are trying to create a tree that is well balanced, open and manageable, as well as aesthetically pleasing. There is no real science for pruning fruit trees. Some of it is trial and error. 

Look at the tree carefully and try to envision it as it will look when it's leafed out in the summer, and eliminate any shoots that seem too closely spaced.

Amy Grant

Amy Grant has been gardening for 30 years and writing for 15. A professional chef and caterer, Amy's area of expertise is culinary gardening.