Pruning fruit trees can be quite intimidating for the novice gardener. However you too can prune fruit trees successfully to get a better harvest.
As I wrote in my article The Value of Your Own Orchard: Growing Amazing Fruit having fruit trees has many benefits. Your own fruit tastes much better and is more healthy. Plus you don’t have to go anywhere to enjoy a fresh picked apple or peach, still warm from the sun.
However there’s some maintenance work involved in order to maximize your harvest and keep your trees healthy for many years to come.
I already wrote about how to fertilize fruit trees. And there is also the usual maintenance work such as weeding around the base of trees, making sure they get adequate water especially in droughts and of course harvesting the fruit once it is ripe and picking up windfall (fruit that has fallen off the tree).
Pruning is also an important maintenance task that can be intimidating to someone just starting out with fruit growing. After all you’re cutting away at a live plant and branches take some time to grow back.
So what do you need to know to prune fruit trees properly to maximize your harvest next summer?
You’ll need some tools and depending on the height of your trees and what you do with the trimmings, I’ve included some optional tools.
- Hand pruners
- (optional) Long pole pruners
- Pruning saw
- (optional) Orchard ladder
- Trug or other container to hold the prunings
- (optional) Shredder/chipper
- Safety Helmet
- Safety Glasses
Wondering why pruning paint is not included above? Current thought is that you should leave the cuts open as it allows the tree to heal it’s cuts more easily.
Pruning is one of those garden tasks that could potentially be dangerous, so there are some safety precautions you must take to avoid having an accident.
Using sharp pruning tools has the inherent risk of cuts. Wear gloves as that will help to protect your hands, but considering that cutting tools are very sharp, you still need to be careful.
Always keep the hand that isn’t holding the pruners or pruning saw away from where you’re cutting. I’ve cut my hand before in trying to hold a branch awkwardly to support the cut or keep the branch from falling. Plan ahead so you can hold the branch safely away from where you’re going to cut it.
Other parts of your body should also be kept away from cutting edges. While it is tempting, don’t use your body to brace a branch that you’re cutting, especially if using a saw.
If you’re pruning anything other than dwarf trees, you likely will need to use a ladder. The right ladder is the first step to keep you safe and I highly recommend a three-legged orchard ladder. Don’t use a regular stepladder on uneven ground and avoid leaning a ladder against a branch that could break under your weight.
Keep you body centered between the rungs of the ladder. It might be tempting to try and reach over to prune a branch that is just out of reach but you risk either tipping the ladder or falling off of it.
When in doubt of your abilities or lack of appropriate ladders, you may need to hire an arbourist, as they have the right ladders, experience and skills to do the job safely.
Obviously pruning means you’re cutting off branches, some perhaps thinner than a pencil, while others may be thicker than your arm. Those branches are going to fall down, since your hands will be occupied holding the pruners or saw while you cut.
Thick, heavy branches can severely injure anyone standing underneath. Make sure when you’re pruning that young children and pets are not in the immediate area. If anyone is helping you, they ideally should be wearing a safety hardhat or helmet to protect their head. Or they need to keep a safe distance away.
Make sure you agree on commands and communicate with your helper prior to cutting a branch off, so they know that something will be coming down and where.
Thin branches may seem safe as they are not as heavy. However they are more likely to poke someone in the eye, ear, nose or mouth which can cause severe injuries. Safety glasses are advised to protect the eyes and if you have a helper, have them stand aside until you signal to them that you’re finished pruning.
Even once those branches are safely on the ground without having injured someone, they’re still a hazard. You can trip if you snag your foot under a larger branch, or poke yourself if a branch sticks into the ground, sticking up like a picket. And if you’re using a ladder, you might place the ladder on a branch and thus the ladder is not as stable as being on solid ground.
So make it an important step to stop pruning regularly and clear away the prunings so they’re not underfoot. You can also use this time to monitor your progress by stepping back from the tree. If you have a helper, they can cleanup but they need to be careful about falling branches if you continue to prune.
When to prune
This really depends on the type of fruit trees you have.
Often the advice is to prune stone fruit trees in summer. However I’ve tried that and find it difficult to see what to cut because of all the leaves. I also fear knocking off the fruit, especially for peaches that ripen late in the summer.
And your trees may get some new growth in response to being pruned in summer. This can cause the young foliage to be damaged if you get an early frost.
So for the most part I’m going back to doing all of my pruning in the dormant season or winter months. When it is cold a tree will likely not try and put out new growth until it warms up in spring.
The idea of pruning in late winter is to prepare the tree for the spring when the weather warms up. Over the course of the previous growing season, the tree will have stored energy in its roots. Once the weather warms up all that energy is going to go back into the branches.
More energy and less branches means each branch will be loaded with energy and able to produce more leaves, blossoms and eventually fruit. At least that is the theory.
At the start of the new year is a good trigger to go out into your garden to prune. I try to do my pruning between Christmas and New Year as I have time off from work.
If it is cold, bundle up. If it is wet, you may want to wait for a drier day, not only for your own comfort but that of your trees. There’s a chance for more disease and rot to set in on freshly cut branches before they have a chance to heal a bit after being cut.
What to prune
I’ve covered this to some extent in the article Pruning Plants: Learn How To Prune Plants Without Killing Them so read that first for general information on what you should prune.
For fruit trees, once you have pruned out the three D’s and any crossing branches, your next step is to maintain the tree shape and size. You don’t want to get too carried away with your pruning. You’ll want to prune only at most a 1/3 of the branches and 1/3 of the length.
Any heavier pruning may affect the tree’s health and definitely will affect next season’s fruit harvest.
There are various different shapes of fruit trees such as espaliered, cordon, leader, etc. forms and some only apply to certain types of fruit trees. Once a tree is a few years old you’ve missed the opportunity to train it. This needs to be done when it is planted. This is a bit beyond this particular post but if there’s interest, I can do another post on these special forms of pruning and training.
You can revive a tree that was incorrectly pruned. First get the tree to the point of a normally pruned tree (remove the three D’s and crossing branches). Then look at the overall structure of the tree.
- Is it lopsided? Being carefully not to prune too much at one time, cut some of the offending branches away to try and restore the shape of the tree. You will have to do this over a couple of years or be willing to lose quite a bit of fruit the first year
- Is it too tall? I’ve had this problem and have been trying to reduce the height of my trees without killing them. Again cut some branches shorter but not all of them if you still want to have fruit.
- Is it choking? A tree that hasn’t been pruned in a long time may have a lot of interior branches. Not pruning those out can cause disease as the tree won’t dry out after a rain as wind can’t get to every branch. Again you may have to prune out interior branches over a few years.
One controversy is whether or not you should prune out the water shoots. These are the long whip-like branches that grow straight up from the top of the tree. In the past convention has always been to prune these away. However in recent years some people are saying not to prune them. It is said that doing so will simply promote more shoots.
I’ve seen this first-hand with my fig trees – I spent quite a bit of time pruning out these very tall straight new growth. This is another case where you’ll see advice on pruning these away during the summer months. For the same reasons given above, I avoid doing so.
But I still do prune away the water shoots mainly to keep the trees from getting too tall but also because the shoots don’t provide any benefit in terms of fruit.
What to do with the prunings
As I mentioned in Pruning Plants: Learn How To Prune Plants Without Killing Them, woody prunings from your fruit trees can be shredded at home with a shredder/chipper. Then you end up with a free mulch that you can use on pathways or your garden beds. Never of course use diseased wood as you could spread the disease around your garden.
If you don’t have a shredder/chipper, you can use the prunings for firewood – the very thin prunings can be bundled up with a cotton twine and then used as a fire starter. Or you can use them as stakes for peas or beans, especially if you create a teepee of three or four sticks tied at one end with the loose end splayed out and stuck into the ground.
You can also use the trimmings on the bottom of your compost when you turn your compost to provide some aeration from the bottom of your new pile.
Or you could cut the branches short and put them in the compost. They will eventually break down over the course of a year or two.
What About Berries?
Raspberries also need to be pruned to maximize next year’s harvest. I’ve written a special blog post and created a video covering pruning raspberry canes.
Pruning is not as scary or difficult as some people think. With a bit of practice you can prune your fruit trees successfully and prepare yourself for a great harvest!