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Prune Fruit Trees – 2: Tools and Technique

Leaf buds in first-year growth hug the twig from which they grow. Flowering buds appear on older growth on the ends of spurs. When shortening a branch, cut behind at least one fruiting bud so you know you’re not pruning in last year’s growth. it’s OK to make that cut at a leaf bud or a flowering bud.

I was out in my small kitchen garden this morning, pruning apple trees. For people in hardiness zones 6 and lower, pruning season is upon us: late winter ends in just 21 days! If you haven’t pruned your fruit trees this winter, you should get started.

Have you never pruned a tree? Follow along. I had planned this post to examine the tools you’ll use, and to lay out a strategy to get good results. The post got quite long, so I’ve divided it into two parts. This one introduces pruning tools and shows how to use them.

Tools for Pruning Apple Trees

Finding Tools

Visit the Small Kitchen Garden Store to find all the tools you need for pruning.

Shears—For young trees, or trees that you’ve managed well over the years, pruning sheers may be enough to do the annual job; they’ll cut through branches up to about the diameter of a pencil. Shears fit easily in a pocket, so you stow them when you’re climbing ladders or trees and pull them out when you’re ready to prune.

A bypass pruner has scissor-like action. That is, two cutting blades slide past each other, each cutting into the branch.

An anvil pruner has one cutting blade that pinches the branch against a flat metal surface until the branch separates.

Two blades of a bypass pruner (left) cut a branch from opposite sides, letting you get close to your work, and decreasing the likelihood of crushing the branch. The single blade of an anvil pruner pinches a branch against a flat surface. In my experience, this often crushes the branch, damaging the leaf bud I’m trying to leave behind.

Perhaps the greatest innovation in pruning shears is the ratcheting shear. When you’re cutting heavy branches, you might not have enough strength to get through with one squeeze. A ratcheting shear lets you start a cut, release pressure, and squeeze again with greater leverage—it’s astonishing how easily a good ratcheting action can complete a cut.

Loppers—When you need to cut through branches thicker than a pencil, use loppers. Loppers come in many sizes. Generally, the longer the handles, the larger the branches they can shear. My loppers easily cut branches the thickness of broomsticks, and I’ve used them to cut branches perhaps twice that… albeit with less-than-ideal results. You can find both bypass and anvil loppers, and there are even ratcheting loppers.

The long handles of loppers give you a lot of leverage to shear off large branches. The handles on this set are three feet long, providing welcome reach into my too-tall trees.

Loppers are too large to put in your pocket, but they extend your reach so you won’t have to climb as high for light-to-medium pruning jobs.

My pruning saw has large teeth on one side for fast cuts through thick branches, and fine teeth on the other side for precise, clean cuts through small branches. I use the smaller teeth when I do grafting; if you plan never to graft, get a saw with big teeth. You’ll get through your pruning quickly.

Pruning saws—For the very thick branches, a pruning saw is handy. You can use other saws—a bow saw would be my first choice—but you’ll find a pruning saw among the easiest to fit into tight spaces and awkward positions you often deal with when working in trees.

I have a pruning saw with very coarse teeth on one side, and fine teeth on the other. The fine teeth have almost no set, so they can cut only very small branches without binding (read the box about Saw Teeth for an explanation of tooth set).

A Pruning Cut

The “how” of making a pruning cut is simple. There are two types: One that shortens a branch, and one that altogether removes a branch. My next post provides guidance on which branches to cut and why. Here’s how to make pruning cuts.

Shortening a Branch

I wish I’d chosen a healthier-looking spur to leave as this branch’s new terminus. But what matters for the discussion is where I’m cutting relative to the spur. The blades roughly match the angle of the spur, but miss the slight bulge where it meets the supporting branch.

To shorten a branch, always cut just beyond a leaf or fruiting bud. Wood protruding beyond the last living bud will most certainly die, leaving a point-of-entry for rot, insects, and microorganisms. When you cut close to a bud, that bud assumes the “leader” role for the branch and grows vigorously in the coming season. Because no wood protrudes beyond the bud, the vigorous new growth quickly scabs over and protects the bare wood.

Note that a bud protrudes from a branch at an angle. Cut along that angle without nicking the wood that directly supports the bud (see photo).

Removing a Branch

Cut a branch off as close as possible to the branch or trunk from which it’s growing. Usually, there is a bulge on the parent branch where the smaller branch emerges from it. Cut flush against that bulge without cutting into it. Also, don’t nick or scratch the bark on the limbs you’re leaving attached. When sawing, lay the saw blade onto the branch you’re preserving, gently engage the limb you’re removing, then saw carefully without letting the blade rub against the supporting branch. Don’t force the blade into the cut, and don’t rush.

Get the loppers in tight against the anchor branch from which you’re pruning another branch. If the branch fits comfortably in the blades of the lopper, you should get a clean cut that heals over in a year or two. In the photo on the right, notice the obvious margin between the branch and the bulge in the branch from which it protrudes. Remove the branch flush with the bulge… but leave the bulge. NOTE: a reader named “Mo” pointed out that I should reverse the loppers for this cut; the thicker blade should be down away from the anchor branch. Please check out his comment for an explanation.

As you reach the end of a cut, support the branch so it doesn’t pinch the saw or splinter away from the tree. Measure your final strokes so the blade doesn’t slip through and accidentally gouge bark. If your saw has teeth on both edges of the blade, you need to be extra careful to keep the rear teeth from messing up the branch you’re retaining.

When using loppers or shears to remove a branch, get the blades as close to the base of the branch as possible, and try to make a clean cut without stabbing the anchor branch. I feel as though I can get a closer cut with bypass pruners than I can with anvil pruners.

Saw Teeth

Few sawyers keep their hands moving in a perfectly straight line as they cut, and every tiny deviation from a straight line flexes the blade against the cut it’s making. Flex it enough and the saw binds; you need to straighten it in the cut to continue sawing.

To give sawyers a margin of error, saw manufacturers build saws with tooth set. The tooth set of a saw is the distance a tooth bends away from the center of the saw blade. Generally, every other tooth’s set goes to one side of the saw blade while the intervening teeth go to the opposite side of the blade. This makes the cutting edge of the blade wider than the blade itself, providing some play as you cut through thick wood.

The width of the slot that the saw makes as it cuts wood is the kerf. The width of the blade plus the set of the teeth determines the kerf of the cut.

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4 Responses to “Prune Fruit Trees – 2: Tools and Technique”

  • Allison:

    This was very instructive. Thank you. The pictures helped a lot. I love doing the gardening and am somewher between a brown and green thumb but don’t know all the lingo so to pair it with the photos worked. Thanks again :)

  • admin:

    I’m glad you found it useful. Pruning is a great off-season gardening activity. It’s usually quiet (who does yard work in winter?), and the job is rarely strenuous. I hope your thumbs green up as the leaves pop.

  • mo:

    I just wanted to point out that the pictures don’t show the proper positioning of the bypass pruner/lopper on the branch.

    They need to be reversed so that the thick blade presses against the side of the branch to be discarded. This way damage to the collar/bulge is avoided, and a clean, precise, and exactly where desired cut is obtained.

    p.s. The bypass pruner cutting a branch picture links to a wrong photo.

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Mo: Thank you for the lesson! This is a subtlety I’ve never had explained, and it makes good sense: the thinner blade of the lopper should be on the “tree side” when you make a cut. That way, the thicker, duller blade presses against wood that you’re removing from the tree rather than against the wood you’re trying to preserve. My fruit trees will appreciate your contribution.

    Thanks also for pointing out the erroneous link. I’m often surprised when I get the links right.

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