Fruit Trees: When should I prune them?
December 23, 2014
Pruning is pretty serious business; when it comes to most of your trees, especially large trees, you should always have them pruned by a trained professional. But when it comes to smaller fruit trees, pruning is typically something that you, the urban gardener, can take care of yourself. Fruit trees require pruning for several reasons: Pruning helps to control their size so they stay to scale in your urban landscape; it improves their strength and vigor by allowing sunlight to reach the interior of the canopy; it improves fruit production and encourages strong buds and flowers. Proper pruning will keep your fruit trees healthy and improve your harvest.
Do you have fruit trees in your landscape? Most fruit trees will require some pruning in late-winter, also called dormant pruning. Dormant pruning should occur as late in winter as possible, but before any bud break activity begins. That means you’ll have to watch your fruit trees very closely come late-January. You’ll want to prune away dead wood and any excess branches before the tree starts to put energy into sprouting all those new buds. While trees are leafless, you’re better able to identify deadwood and any crossing branches that may need to be removed.
A good rule of thumb for knowing when to prune each kind of fruit tree is to prune the later blooming tree first, followed by the earlier flowering types. Typically, you’ll start with apples and pecans (although large pecans should be pruned by a professional). Peach and plum trees will follow.
Take care though, as excessive dormant pruning can cause the tree to put out an overabundance of “water sprouts” (sometimes called suckers, although that term is more correctly applied to shoots that emerge from the ground.) These thin, fast growing shoots often produce only vegetative growth and little to no fruit.
There are two main types of pruning techniques: The Central Leader Method and the Open Center Method. Which type you use depends on the type of fruit tree you have.
In the Central Leader Method, you’ll allow the tree to retain a main trunk or leader. Plants are trained into a pyramidal shape. This method is perfect for apples, pears and plums.
With the Open Center Method, the main leader branch is removed and the tree is trained into a more open vase-like shape. This method is especially good for allowing sunlight to reach all the branches in dense fruit trees such as peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds. Sunlight is the main component for healthy, heavy fruit production.
Other pruning terms you’ll hear include “thinning”, which entails removing an entire shoot or limb at its base. “Heading” is when you prune away the tip or part of the branch. Thinning is performed in order to open up the canopy and allow more light to penetrate the center of the tree. Heading, or tip pruning, is performed to encourage more lateral branching.
Most shaping should be done in the first three years after planting you fruit trees. You’ll want to pay especially close attention the the shape you are giving your tree as these are the best years to train your trees growth habit. With fruit trees, you can keep your urban orchard pruned to a manageable size in order to easily pick fruit.
As trees age, prune less. Younger trees can take heavier pruning.
Trim branches and small shoots that are downward pointed, growing straight up, or growing in a way that blocks the lower branches from receiving sunlight. The goal is to open the tree up without trimming more than ⅓ of the canopy.
Keeping a good mix of horizontal branches that provide more fruit and vertical branches that remain vegetative is best for the health of the tree.
Start at the top of the tree and prune downwards to open up the tree to the most sunlight.
Make clean cuts with a quality pruning tool.
Haven’t planted fruit trees yet? It’s not too late! Winter is a great time to plant fruit while they are dormant. Remember, if you have questions about your fruit trees, ask us on Twitter or Facebook!