You might be surprised to hear that early spring is the ideal time to prune your fruit trees. I mean, haven’t we always been told that winter is the best pruning season?
Well, yes, if you need to do some hardcore, renovative pruning, that’s true. Winter is when plants are dormant. It’s like they’re under a natural anesthesia, so they can handle invasive surgery better. So if you have a shrub that is way out of control and you feel like you just need to cut it down to the ground and start over, then, yes, winter is the time to do it.
However, if your goal is to train your plants and spur them on to greater things, the pruning should be done while the plant is awake. The timing varies from plant to plant, but for most fruit trees March-April is the perfect time to do it.
During the early spring our fruit trees are just gearing up for their big explosion of growth. First the tree stores up the energy it needs and “makes decisions” about where to direct that energy. It is during this time you want to do some pruning. The tree will then direct its energy appropriately, based on the effects of your pruning. This is when fruit trees are best able to respond to the pruning and make positive adjustments.
Every type of fruit tree is different, and they each have their own preferences for ideal pruning. However, there are some basic principles that apply to all fruit tree pruning.
Basic Principles of Fruit Tree Pruning
Prune towards the goal. If your goal is flowers and branches you may not want to do much pruning. However, if your goal is to encourage good fruit, pruning is essential.
- When removing branches, cut them as close to the source limb as possible.
- Always use the correct tools. There are three tools I use: pruning shears, loppers, and a small hand saw. Occasionally, for really big branches, I’ll use a bow saw. But when do you use each one? If you are straining to cut a branch you are using the wrong tool. If you find you are squeezing hard to get through a branch with your pruning shears, move up to the loppers. Pruning should never require strain.
- Start with dead or damaged branches. Dead branches just take up space. Damaged branches are more of a concern. They are entry points for disease. So get rid of everything dead, damaged or diseased first. This also includes branches that are rubbing against each other.
- Next, get rid of root suckers and water sprouts. Fruit trees produce fruit on lateral branches. These are the strongest branches, the ones that can hold a lot of weight, like a basket of fruit! Branches that are growing straight up, though, are just wasting energy. Cut them off.
- Next, look for potential problems. These include branches that are growing towards each other, branches that are growing towards the inside of the tree, and branches that are obstructing a walkway.
- Finally, prune for shape. If you are pruning for ornamental value, you want to train the tree to grow with a central leader – one main stem that grows straight up, and off of which all the other branches grow. Keep removing larger branches, and encourage smaller branches.
Pruning for Fruit Production – The Open Center Method
Most commercial growers use the ‘Open Center System’ of pruning. As the name implies, all branches from the center of the tree are removed, and only outward facing branches are left. Below is an example of a fruit tree that was pruned using the Open Center method. These pictures were taken of a commercial orchard in California. They happen to be next door to a cousin of mine who is a farmer down there.
- Be at an upward/outward angle, but somewhat horizontal, not straight up.
- Be growing outwards, away from the center of the tree
- Be fairly large.
- Support six secondary, fruit-producing branches.
The result of this is a flattened shape that is much easier to harvest. You’ll have between 30-40 branches, each bearing fruit, which will give you plenty of fruit! Here’s another similarly pruned tree.
This isn’t exactly the look you want your tree to have if you plan to have wedding pictures taken in front of it! But, if you’re after fruit production this is the way to go. Actually, when they leaf out they don’t look so bad. Here’s a picture from a few months later, same orchard. Lots of fruit, not a lot of branches to deal with. Imagine having to pick fruit from 20 acres of these, though!
Now, you don’t need to get your tree to this point all at once. If your tree has never been pruned before you may need to take a few years to get it there. Start with some lower branches, though, and begin working towards those becoming the six main structural branches of the tree.
Fruit Tree Thinning
You may also want or need to do some thinning. This will encourage fewer but larger and better tasting fruit. Some fruit trees produce way too much fruit, at least from the perspective of desiring good quality fruit for food. Thinning reduces the amount of fruit produced by the tree, which means all of the tree’s fruit-producing energy can be concentrated, rather than spread out over too much fruit. Would you rather have three baskets of small and sour peaches, or one big basket of large, juicy sweet peaches?
Thinning, where fruit trees are concerned, means removing a portion of the flowers near the end of the bloom season. Or you can remove a portion of the fruit, after the fruit has begun to form, but while they are still small and immature.
How many should you removed? It depends on the kind of fruit tree. For apples, thin to about 6-8 inches between fruits. For nectarines, maybe a little more space than that, 6-10 inches. Apricots only need about 2-3 inches between fruit. You do not need to thin out plums, cherries, pears or citrus fruits.
At Least Do Something
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by all of this, don’t worry. Just start simply and do what you’re comfortable doing. The only real mistake you can make is to not prune at all. If you take too much off and mess things up, it will grow back.
Review the basic principles and maybe just do the first few steps this year. Then next year you can build on what you started. In just a few years you will have that fruit tree whipped into shape and it will be come the fruit-producing machine you always wanted!