Fruit Tree Pruning: How And When To Prune Fruit Trees

Clippers Pruning A Fruit Tree
fruit tree pruning
(Image credit: LianeM)

Timing and method of fruit tree pruning can enhance the amount and quality of your crop. Learning when to prune fruit trees will also create an open scaffold that is strong enough to bear all those beautiful fruits without breaking. Proper pruning methods and timing are the keys to bountiful crops and healthy trees. Read on for some tips and techniques on fruit tree pruning.

When to Prune Fruit Trees

Most fruit trees don't need pruning annually once they have been trained. Initial fruit tree pruning is important to help young trees produce thick stems and open canopies where light and air can enter and promote flowering, as well as reduce fungal and bacterial diseases

The best time for pruning fruit trees is at planting and in subsequent years, in early spring before buds break and trees are still dormant. Pruning should be undertaken at planting time where you cut the new stem off 24 to 30 inches (61-76 cm.) from the ground and remove any side shoots. This causes the new tree to grow low branches and balances growth and the root system to keep the plant from getting top-heavy during establishment. 

You can't expect much fruiting in the first two to three years as the plant develops low branches for better fruiting. This training for young trees can take many forms, but the most common is central leader training. This type of training gives the tree a strong trunk and laterally branching stems that start about 30 inches (76 cm.) from the ground. The scaffold is formed by selecting a scaffold whorl, four to five balanced branches, which will form the base form of the tree.

Fruit Tree Pruning After the First Year

It's important to know how to prune a fruit tree for the first three years. The goal is to increase scaffold strength, promote fruiting branches, and minimize rubbing and crossing. 

The best time for pruning fruit trees that are newly planted is in the summer after new growth has begun to sprout from the initial cuts. After new growth has reached 3 to 4 inches (7.5-10 cm.), select the central leader and remove all other branches 4 inches (10 cm.) below it. 

Side branches are spread with toothpicks or similar items to form crotch angles of 45 to 60 degrees from the central leader. This allows maximum light and air and creates strong branches that aren't prone to splitting and can handle a load of heavy fruit. After five to six weeks, remove these spreaders.

How to Prune a Fruit Tree After Three Years

The first three years are devoted to managing the scaffold, removing any crossing branches, secondary stems, waterspouts (or sucker growth), downward growth and heading back lateral growth to one-quarter of their complete length. This later step forces side branches. 

Additionally, dormant pruning is used on mature trees to keep the lateral branches in the proper shape by cutting them back to at least two-year-old wood that is close to the same diameter using angle cuts that force water away from the cut end. 

Dormant pruning in early spring is also the time to remove dead wood and errant growth that is weak and diminishes fruiting. Once the tree is mature, if proper training took place, pruning is nearly unnecessary except to reduce downward weak branches, waterspouts, and remove dead wood. 

Neglected fruit trees may require drastic rejuvenation pruning, which reinvigorates the scaffold but will minimize fruit load for several years. It is necessary to know how to prune a fruit tree that has been neglected or the wood will become weak and breakage and splitting will occur. 

Additionally, trees that are crowded have poor fruit production, so canopy management becomes a concern for older plants.

Bonnie L. Grant

Bonnie Grant is a professional landscaper with a Certification in Urban Gardening. She has been gardening and writing for 15 years. A former professional chef, she has a passion for edible landscaping.