Fruit Tree Pruning Basics
by Robin Snyder, Tumalo Garden Market
Many people feel that fruit tree pruning is too complex a task to be done by amateurs, but when we amateurs learn a few basic concepts, we can keep our fruit trees healthy, well-shaped and bearing excellent fruit. It’s simple: Learn the two basic pruning cuts, get equipped with good tools and keep in mind your long-term goals when pruning.
Fruit trees do survive our mistakes as we learn to prune, so feel confident in pruning with these few basic concepts as your guide. You’ll not only have healthy fruit trees and fruit, but will gradually become a confident and competent fruit tree pruner.
Purposes for Fruit Tree Pruning
• Pruning keeps fruit trees healthy by removing diseased limbs, crowded branches or branches that grow with narrow angles.
• Pruning also maximizes the quality of fruit by controlling the number of fruit buds. This allows each fruit to reach maximum size without their weight breaking branches. Pruning dense outer branches allows fruit buds to avoid fungal diseases by providing them plenty of sunlight and breeze.
• Finally, pruning is critical to maintain the size and shape of fruit trees. A tree’s rootstalk largely determines each fruit tree’s potential size — whether it is a dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard tree. However, annual pruning is also crucial in determining a fruit tree’s ultimate size as well as its shape.
Basic Tree Shapes
The two basic shapes for fruit trees are either the central-leader or the open-center, also called a “vase-shaped” tree. The central-leader tree will create a smaller tree with less fruit, but easily allows sunlight to all branches. The open-center shape allows a tree to grow larger, but the upper canopy must be kept pruned to allow sunlight and air to reach the center.
Fruit Tree Pruning Basics:
Pruning has the following benefits:
• Assists trees to get established
• Promotes the development of a strong framework of branches on young trees, so they are capable of supporting a good crop.
• Develops and maintains the size and shape of the tree.
• Encourages the growth of new fruiting wood, to keep the tree productive.
• Reduces the incidence of disease by removing broken, dead, or diseased branches.
• Creates spacing between branches. This allows air circulation through the tree, which discourages disease development. It also allows light into the center of the tree, prevent shading and maximizing photosynthesis.
• Makes spraying, thinning and harvesting easier.
• Enhances early productivity.
• Increases fruit size and quality.
• Promotes flower bud development throughout the tree canopy.
• Reduces the tendency for biennial bearing.
It’s best to envision the basic shape you want for your fruit tree the year you plant it because you’ll begin then with gentle pruning. When choosing between a central-leader and vase-shape, consider not only how much elbow room your tree will have when mature, but the type and character of your tree. For example, pear trees naturally assume a central-leader shape, but peach trees seem to insist on an open center. One apple tree may easily form a central-leader, while another seems destined to be vase-shaped. Your pruning ultimately determines a tree’s shape.
Tools for Fruit Tree Pruning
Good pruning tools are important to avoid damaging your fruit trees or frustrating yourself. Basic hand-shears are necessary for the youngest trees. As fruit trees grow in size, you’ll want to add pruning loppers and a pruning hand saw. See us at Tumalo Garden Market if you need help picking one out.
When to Prune Fruit Trees
Fruit tree pruning takes place during the late winter and very early spring, when fruit trees are dormant. Here in Central Oregon that is February and March. Late winter is the best time to begin pruning. Start your pruning with apple trees so you can delay pruning the more cold-sensitive trees, like peaches, until late March or into April. Pruning should be completed before fruit buds show their first pink.
The exceptions to this completion date are the unwanted growths of watersprouts and suckers. Watersprouts are often caused by stress and are recognized by growing vertically off their parent-branch. Suckers grow up at the base of the tree from below the graft line. Both deplete fruit tree’s resources and should be pruned off when they appear.
Basic Cuts of Fruit Tree Pruning:
The Thinning Cut and Heading Cut
Thinning cuts remove entire branches or limbs. This cut is made just beyond the “collar,” or circular bark, at the base of the branch you’re removing. A tree heals over this cut area if the collar is not injured and if a stub is not left extending beyond the collar. This thinning cut is used to remove branches that are crowded, diseased or weak. So, if two branches begin at a point close together and grow in the same direction, one should be removed. When limbs cross one another, one or both should be cut back or removed. (The branch collar is a distinctive bulge at the base of the branch, where it connects to the trunk. It is actually interlocking layers of cells of the branch and the trunk. It is the part that will heal the wound left by pruning. The branch collar seals off the wound, minimizing disease and decay. Proper pruning leaves the branch collar intact. Branch collars vary widely from tree to tree, and from species to species. Some are large and very noticeable, while some are much harder to distinguish).
When branches are still small, the thinning cut is also used to remove any that have narrow-angles. Maintaining branches at 10 and 12 o’clock angles will give them the best strength. Finally, use the thinning cut to eliminate any branches that grow towards the center of the tree.
Heading cuts are made just after a bud and are used to change the direction a limb is growing or to shorten it. It is also used to stimulate the buds just before the heading cut so they will grow out into branches the following year. Make your heading cut at a 45-degree angle and about 1/4-inch beyond an outward-facing bud.
• When removing large branches, to prevent tearing off the bark and damaging the tree as it comes off, use a three-cut method of pruning (see below).
• First, undercut the branch a few inches away from the trunk to prevent bark tearing. Next, move a short distance from the first cut farther out on the branch and remove the entire branch. This will eliminate the weight of the branch, so you can make a final pruning cut. Start the third pruning cut on the outside edge of the branch-bark ridge and cut through the branch to the outside edge of the collar swelling on the underside of the branch. Remove only the branch; do not damage the trunk. So, don’t cut the branch flush with the trunk or parent limb, be sure to leave a collar (a short stub).
• To develop an espalier, fan, or other two-dimensional form, simply remove everything that doesn’t grow flat. Selectively thin and train what’s left to space the fruiting wood.
Many people tend to avoid pruning because they fear they will do it incorrectly. It is important to realize that there are various ways to prune a tree and no two people would do it in the same way. A lot of it is a matter of personal judgement, and ultimately, the best way to learn how to prune by just doing it!
How Much to Prune Annually
A good rule is to not prune more than 1/3 of any tree annually so you don’t damage its long-term health. When pruning an older neglected tree, it may therefore take three to five years to get it to the shape and size you want. Some trees, like peaches, are such vigorous growers that they require a fourth of their growth to be removed each spring. Young trees should be only gently pruned. Removing unwanted growth when it is still small benefits fruit trees in the long-term. However, in Backyard Orchard Culture suggested by Dave Wilson Nursery, pruning process is different but fairly straightforward.
Below is an outline of the pruning process as carried out over the first three years:
Bare-root trees or BB trees or potted trees
• Right after planting a new tree, cut off the top so it is only 24 to 30 inches (60-75cm) high to encourage low branching and to equalize the top and root system. It can be cut at 15 inches to force very low scaffold limbs, or higher, up to four feet, depending on existing side limbs and desired tree form.
• Cut any side limbs back by at least two-thirds (or 1 to 2 buds) to promote vigorous new growth.
• After the spring flush of new growth, cut the new growth back by half. (You can distinguish new growth as it will still be green flexible wood and will not have turned woody and hard yet like the previous year’s growth)
• In late summer, cut the subsequent any new summer growth back by half.
• Pruning is the same as the first year. Cut back new growth by half in spring and again in late summer.
• For some vigorous varieties, pruning three times may be the easiest way to manage the tree: spring, early summer and late summer.
• Decide on the height of the tree and don’t let the tree get any taller than that. If there are any vigorous shoots that grow above the chosen height, cut them back or remove them completely.
• Remove any broken branches or diseased branches well below the signs of disease.
• Ensure that the smaller branches that bear the fruit (which will be 1, 2 and 3-years old) have at least six inches (15 cm) of free space all around them.
• When removing branches smaller than your thumb, use a good pair of hand clippers or a hand saw and carefully cut off the branch at its base without damaging the collar.
From the previous instructions on pruning, it is evident that it will take around three years of pruning to train many varieties of tree to form a sturdy and healthy framework of branches to bear the weight of fruit they will carry.
Additionally, trees take years to mature, and the amount of fruit they produce increases as they grow in size and in age. It is important to be patient with such an endeavor, as you are establishing a natural system that will be productive for decades and possibly longer than a human lifetime.
With that in mind, the sooner you plant your trees, the sooner they will be productive, which is a good reason not to procrastinate and get planting and learn pruning! Join staff and invited Arborist for a pruning Demonstration here at Tumalo Garden Market February 2019. You can sign up for the workshop (there is a fee) on our website at www.tumalogardenmarket.com.
Next installment: Sweet Rewards Part 3: Siting and placement for your Backyard Orchard
Dave Wilson Nursery, Hickman, CA – Copyright 1994, 1999 Dave Wilson Nursery
OSU Extension Service Pruning Publications https://extension.oregonstate.edu/Deschutes
Your Garden Sanctuary https://www.yourgardensanctuary.com/pruning-to-reduce-regrowth/
Robin Snyder, Tumalo Garden Market Professional Nursery Staff
renderings courtesy of Robin Snyder, Tumalo Garden Market