Garden Advice

When is the Best Time to Prune Fruit Trees and How Do You Do It?

Pruning fruit trees is not an easy job. The techniques and skills needed to prune a fruit tree for successful cultivation are many and, for most beginner gardeners, they can be hard to understand. In this article, we will explain all about how to properly prune a fruit tree, when to do it, and why it is important.

So, if you:

  • Are a gardening enthusiast who wants to prune their fruit trees;
  • Want to help your trees have a healthy produce every year;
  • Want to acquire more knowledge on how to properly care for your fruit trees;

Then, keep on reading – this post has everything you need to know!

Why do you need to prune fruit trees?

Cutting off limbs to improve growth can sound counter-intuitive, however, this is a regular maintenance process that trees have to go through. If we were to explain the importance of pruning fruit trees briefly: 

Pruning is necessary to maintain optimal conditions in which you want fruit trees to grow throughout their lifetime. When trees age, pruning is needed to provoke vegetative growth, so next year your trees can produce a healthy crop.

Now, let’s unravel all the reasons for pruning and discuss each one in detail:

Reason #1. Control shading and air penetration 

The larger the tree grows, the thicker its crown becomes. Over some time, lower branches might stop receiving enough sunlight. This directly influences the healthy production of leaves and buds. Eventually, the branches that don’t get enough light can die.

Trees that have an open canopy produce big and flavourful fruits, compared to the ones that grow in shade. If a tree is exposed to the optimal amount of sunlight, it will be able to produce enough sugar content for the fruits to have a distinctive taste and bright colour.

Moreover, by creating relatively even spaces between branches, you allow the airflow to go through. Free airflow is important for trees, as it reduces the chances of them getting fungal infections. 

Reason #2. Protect against diseases and damage

Like any other living organisms, trees are prone to diseases, unless someone takes proper care of them, of course.

Pay attention to the damaged, dead and diseased branches, as they might harm the rest of the tree. Badly positioned branches can rub on one another and eventually leave open wounds. Airborne diseases, such as scab, mildew, or silver leaf can easily infect the damaged wood and worse, affect adversely neighbouring thriving branches. Remove those to boost your trees’ energy and turn it into producing new growth.

A couple of large unbalanced limbs also have to be removed, as they can hinder the vigour of the tree. Broken limbs can damage the rest of the tree by breaking lower healthy branches and leaving open wounds.

Reason #3. Formative pruning

Young fruit trees will benefit from formative pruning in the first couple of years of their life and possibly, into their third one. The method is designed to train the woody plant into the desired shape so that optimal fruit production is achieved and the size of the tree is effectively controlled. There are various tree training techniques that are applied, depending on the type of fruit trees you have (pome trees, stone fruit trees, citrus trees, etc.). Some of the popular formative pruning methods that shape the framework of the tree include the following: open-centre tree shape (the so-called goblet or vase shape), central-leader tree shape and multi-stemmed tree shape (not so popular with fruit trees). 

Reason #4. Boost fruit production and growth

Fruit-bearing woody plants should be maintained young, otherwise, you risk the quality of your produce. So, by taking out old branches each year, you encourage the dominant buds to produce more young shoots, controlling the age of the tree. Different trees have a different optimal age for producing fruit. But generally, the best and most delicious fruit can be harvested when the tree is between 2 and 5-6 years old. 

Additionally, to improve the quality of your produce, you might want to thin the crop by removing some of the fruits, while they’re still small. This will result in a better quality crop, as your tree will have extra nutrients to distribute among the remaining crop.

Reason #5. Rejuvenate old trees

Another reason for pruning your fruit trees is if they are now on the mature side and a bit overgrown. Even if you think that the tree is not worth keeping because it can no longer produce nice fruit, you may still consider giving them a chance and rejuvenating them. Be it to invite wildlife in your garden or enjoy a focal point, with the right pruning techniques, you can revitalise your old fruit tree. 

Unlike younger trees, older neglected fruit trees will most likely produce fewer fruits or none at all. The restoration of the fruit trees should be done in a period of several years to avoid over-pruning. 

If the tree is hard to revive, a better solution would be to replace it. But make sure to check if your tree is a valuable, old cultivar that is worth retaining.

When is the best time to prune fruit trees?

Now that we know the main reasons why you need to prune fruit trees, it’s time to look at when to start pruning fruit trees. The short answer is – it depends on the type of trees you have and what you are looking to achieve. Do you want to reduce the size of an overgrown tree? Or maybe you want to help a young tree grow healthier? 

  • Generally, pomme fruit trees, like apples, pears and quinces, are pruned when they are dormant. Wait until the leaves fall, but don’t postpone it for too long. Once the buds burst in the spring, it will be too late to prune. Usually, the pruning should be carried out between November and March before it gets warm.
  • Stone fruits, such as cherry, plum and damson, on the other hand, don’t like to be pruned in winter. These trees are best pruned in spring or summer before or right after they bloom.
  • With newly planted trees, you may need to prune them once that year. This is usually done in early spring or mid-autumn.
  • If you want to cut some high branches, so you can harvest fruits easily, the best time to do it is generally in spring
  • If you are wondering when to remove diseased branches – you can do it any time of the year, but it’s easier to see and identify them in winter.

Avoid pruning fruit trees in autumn. During this season, trees slow their growth, so leaving open wounds on the branches will make the trees susceptible to airborne diseases. 

On that note, if you are wondering what gardening activities you need to undertake throughout the whole year, you will find our Fantastic Year-Round Gardening Calendar quite useful.

How to avoid mistakes when pruning fruit trees?

Tree vigour

Pruning practices can help keep the balance between tree vigour and flower buds. Tree vigour is the number of shoots that a tree grows in one year. Some trees are more vigorous, therefore should be pruned with that in mind. 

Trees that have mainly vigorous shoots should be pruned lightly to avoid the stimulation of excess growth. If a tree has too many flower buds, then some of them can be removed, to maintain the balance.  

To understand if your tree is vigorous, you need to look at its branches. If you look at the tip of a branch, you will see a demarcation between the current and the previous years’ shoots – a circular ridge that visually divides the branch in two. Shoots that are longer than 60 cm are considered vigorous and will not bear any fruits in the coming year. Smaller shoots of 10 cm and less are called spurs. Spurs will bear flower buds and eventually fruits in the coming year.

Pruning cuts

Another thing to pay attention to when pruning fruit trees is to know how to properly make the cuts, so you don’t harm the branches.

There are two fundamental types of cuts in pruning. The way how a branch or a shoot is cut and in relation to nearby shoots define the type of the cut. By knowing them, you will be able to determine the response that your trees will give to a certain cut. 

  • Thinning cuts are used to remove whole shoots or branches at their base, where the shoot connects with the limb. Use those cuts to remove dead and diseased branches or when you need to keep a balance between fruit and shoots production.
  • Heading cuts are used to shape your tree and change the direction of its branches. Generally, once you remove branches or shoots with a heading cut, it will promote the tree’s vigour, as it will encourage the growth of more shoots and buds near the cut. The heading cut is made by cutting partially a shoot that is not older than 2 years to a bud; or by cutting a stem back to a lateral branch, knowing that the branch will not grow significantly. 

Use the two types of cuts we’ve mentioned according to what you are looking to achieve with the final result. If you are looking for additional information on how to prune trees and shrubs in general, you can take a look at this useful article, where it is explained further.

How to prune a fruit tree correctly

We’ve talked about why you need to prune your fruit trees when to do it, and some general mistakes, which you must avoid, so let’s look at the proper approach to the whole process:

  1. Prepare your tools

    Make sure that all your tools are sharp and clean. Blunt tools will only damage your trees, leaving rough and shabby cuts. Clean cuts heal faster and therefore are less prone to infections.

    Cleaning your tools is also crucial for healthy pruning. Use some rubbing alcohol to disinfect the tools before moving to another tree. This way you eliminate the risk of transferring diseases to the other trees.

  2. Remove unhealthy growth

    In this step, you need to locate all the crossing, ribbing, broken, dead and diseased branches, as well as strong shoots that grow towards the centre. Remove them without any hesitation.

  3. Prune main branches

    Remove about one-third of the last year’s growth to provoke the development of new branches and spurs. The cuts should be made near the buds facing the direction you want the branches to grow.

  4. Side-shoots pruning

    Unless the lateral shoots are crossing each other or grow towards the centre of your tree, they should be left unpruned. Later, they will develop fruit buds.

  5. Distribute pruning cuts evenly throughout the canopy

    This is done to maintain an even distribution of the branches and keep the desired shape of the tree. Selectively remove the shoots as you move around the tree. One area might be more crowded than the other, so you might want to focus on it more. And remember, in one winter you shouldn’t remove more than 10-20% of the overall canopy.

Not sure you can prune fruit trees yourself?

Maintaining fruit trees is hard, and pruning requires experience and skills, which need time to develop. If you have fruit trees in your garden and enjoy having fresh fruit every year, but find it too hard to prune them by yourself, consider getting help from the pros! 

Fantastic Services offers expert tree surgery and tree pruning and trimming services for your convenience. We work with qualified specialists in your area who will take proper care of your garden. Our services are designed to save you precious free time and effort while delivering amazing results. Learn more today!

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Takeaways

  • Pruning is important for growing healthy and flavourful fruits every year;
  • Create an optimal shape for your trees to receive enough sunlight and air; 
  • Fruit trees like apples and pears are best pruned during winter. Remove bits of the old growth each winter to stimulate new growth the following year;
  • Stone fruit trees (peaches, cherries, etc.) are best pruned in the spring or summer;
  • Don’t remove more than 10-20% of the overall canopy size in one seasonal pruning.

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Did you find this article useful? Let us know in the comments if you have any other questions!

Image source: shutterstock/ M. Schuppich

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