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10 Rules for Pruning Fruit Trees

A simple guide highlighting ten rules of how to train your home orchard. Check which season is the best time to prune fruit bushes and larger trees.

PRUNING A FRUIT TREE: Most gardeners understand the importance of training fruit trees to grow in a manageable size.

This guide explains why pruning a fruit garden of apples and pears is the best way to keep the trees small.

There is a common dilemma for most pomologists.

They want to know whether to start trimming the bushes in winter or spring time. Or is it best to wait for a few hazy days in the great British summer?

When and How to Prune Fruit Trees

So, let’s answer the frequently asked question, when is the best time to prune a fruit tree?

1. Prune Fruit Trees When Dormant

The best time for pruning fruit bushes and trees is when the bush is dormant and its leaves have fallen off. It makes it easier to see where you are cutting. Removing dormant buds generally stimulates new growth from remaining growing points.

Pruning fruit trees and bushes in peak summer time is one that needs avoiding. A fruit tree without leaves has its flesh exposed to too much sunshine.

Early summer pruning is not uncommon if you need to slow down the growth of excessively vigorous fruit trees. It is even more effective if you have lost total control of the orchard.

2. Cut Back After New Planting

Newly planted fruit trees should get cut back to a short stick soon after planting. Ideally, the fruit tree twig should be no taller than thirty inches from the ground.

Remove the side shoots. But, leave one or two buds above ground to encourage low branching and an equal system (top and root).

Note: Painting young fruit trees with a white coloured latex paint helps to protect them from borer attacks and sun burning.

3. Young Trees Can Be Pruned Heavily

Heavily prune young trees and bushes showing low vigor, especially for the first three years. Encourage rapid growth with less fruit for the first few seasons. Thus, follow the basic rules for pruning apple trees and other popular shrubbery like pears or apricots. It will reward you with much fruiting in later years.

Small horizontal branches should generally be left untouched for later fruit growth. Most experts suggest that young trees that grow vigorously, need much less pruning. It results in branch bending with earlier fruit crops.

4. Horizontal and Vertical Branching

Upright vertical branches are usually most vigorous and vegetative. Whereas, a fruit tree with high numbers of horizontal branches is likely to be more fruitful.

Aim to have a good combination and balance of horizontal and vertical branching. In most cases, this is best achieved with branches which lean at 45 to 60 degree angles to the trunk.

5. Topping and Thinning Branches
  • Topping Vertical Branches: Higher vegetative growth helps to develop a fruit tree into a rounded bush.
  • Thinning Vertical Branches: Creates an open tree which receives more sunlight.
  • Topping Horizontal Branches: Results in invigorated fruiting wood and thins out excessive fruit crops.
  • Thinning Horizontal Branches: Removes tree flesh (uncut horizontal branches bear early with heavy crops).
6. Remove Diseased or Broken Branches

One of the most important of all 10 rules for pruning fruit bushes and trees is to remove all diseased or broken branches. Remember also to look for, and cut off, water sprouts, overloaded branches competing upwards into the tree, and suckers.

Lop off the lower parts of any low bending branches which are hanging beyond 90 degrees. They will eventually lose strength and produce small fruit.

7. Making the Cut

The simplest rule to understand on fruit tree pruning is that new growth appears exactly where you make the cut. Thus, cutting stems and branches affects buds which are only a few inches away from the trim (1 – 8 inches at the most). This means when more buds get cut off the tree – the new shoots will be more vigorous (all other things being equal).

8. Make Clean Cuts

One of the most important ground rules of gardening is how and when to cut back the selective parts of plants, particularly buds and branches. Do not leave stubs any time you are cutting away a dead branch or an overgrown stem. Make sure that all the cuts are clean and within one centimeter of a plant bud.

9. Removing the Previous Year’s Growth
  1. Remove a minimum of 50% of the previous year’s growth on trees which fruit grapes, kiwis, peaches, and nectarines.
  2. Remove around 20% of previous year’s growth on trees and bushes which fruit apples, apricots, plums, plumcots (pluot), pears, walnuts, fig, olives, chestnuts, almonds, pecan, cherries, feijoa, and persimmon.
  3. Keep the skirts pruned up off the ground for the majority of citrus fruits.
10. Prune Tree Tops to Allow Sunlight

Prune more so in the top of fruit tree to encourage lower branch growth. Bare wood exposed to sunlight remains fruitful – producing larger fruit. Whereas, shaded branches are slow to produce fruit. They will eventually stop fruiting. It is unlikely shaded branches will produce again unless the tree receives a drastic topping.

Pruning Fruit Bushes and Trees: UK Guide to Keeping them Healthy