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Prune Fruit Trees – 3: What and Why

Look to Learn

When you’re learning something, it’s useful to look at examples of what you’re trying to achieve. I encourage you to do that with pruning: find a local commercial orchard and ask for a tour with emphasis on the trees. Do this in March and you may get to see a professional pruner in action. If you can’t get a tour, at least get where you can examine some trees. Well-tended trees can be very distinctive when they’ve dropped their leaves. Seeing how professionals shape their trees may inspire your approach to pruning.

A most amazingly frigid cold descended on my small kitchen garden yesterday. That’s actually helpful because the last week of February felt like spring, and I need a few more weeks of winter; I’m still pruning and grafting in my fruit trees.

If you’ve been following Your Small Kitchen Garden blog, I’ve been sharing with you thoughts about pruning apple trees… and most other deciduous trees. In the past two posts, we’ve laid the groundwork for pruning. In the first, we talked about reasons to prune your fruit trees, and offered some very broad guidelines. In the second post, we looked at pruning tools, and discussed the basic technique for cutting branches shorter or altogether removing them. This post offers describes what to prune and why.

A Pruning Operations Checklist


A branch in my pear tree snapped under the weight of fruit. The scar is a portal for disease and insects, so I’ll prune it away this winter. Notice the many healthy branches that are competing to take the place of the broken branch. I’ll prune most of those away as well.

Here, vaguely in order of priority, are the guidelines I follow when pruning apple trees… or peach trees or pear trees. These guidelines will work as well with all temperate climate deciduous trees:

1. If your tree is a chimera (root stock and fruiting stock grafted together), don’t prune off everything above the graft. Root stock may grow into a viable tree that even produces fruit, but not likely fruit you’d want to eat. So, if any branches emerge from the root stock (below the grafting scar), cut them off; undesirable root stock growth will compete with grafted stock.

You almost certainly won’t be able to identify the original graft on an older tree, but if the tree puts out young branches within a foot of the ground, they should go. Sadly, new, young branches sprouting low on the trunk of an old tree are a clue that the tree is unhealthy.

Finding Tools

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

2. Prune all dead wood as closely as possible to live wood. If you find a live branch that has a lot of dead branches protruding from it, look for health issues with the live branch: Is the bark cracking? Is there obvious rot? Has the branch been bent severely? Are there holes in the bark? If there are a lot of dead branches on a live branch, the live branch is probably dying. You don’t need to remove it (yet), but do so if removing it fits easily with the rest of your pruning plan.

3. Prune away branches that have splits, cracks through the bark, peeling bark, or obvious rot. Fungus is a sign that a branch is only partly alive—but a healthy branch may have algae, moss, and even lichens growing on it.

Three branches of about the same diameter run nearly parallel. Branches that emerge from these intertwine, competing for sunshine. If these branches all emerge from the same “parent” branch, it makes sense to remove two of them. If they emerge from separate parents, removing competing sub-branches and shortening one or two of the larger branches shown may be the better choice.

4. Prune to rid trees of branches that touch each other—or that are growing into the same space as other branches. Touching branches rub in the wind, making holes in the bark. They might also trap water that promotes rot and attracts insects. Branches growing into the same space compete for sunlight. Generally, preserve the healthier branch, and remove the weaker one.

5. Don’t make one branch do the work of several. It’s an easy mistake to make: You find three or four main branches whose lesser branches grow into the same space. Removing all but one of the main branches would simplify the tree. However, it would be better to preserve the main branches and prune lesser branches from them. This encourages new growth from the main branches, and might produce lesser branches to fill the tree out in other directions.

6. Prune branches from above to let light onto the branches below… and to let light into the middle of the tree. A tree north of the equator may need more severe pruning of its southern branches as those shade lower branches on the north side of the tree. My apple trees are on a north-facing hill, so the lower, northern branches see little sunlight. While the trees grow generally up, newer growth tends to lean southward, and those low, northern branches curve around the rest of the tree.

Here’s my best apple tree with a six-foot step ladder for scale. The tree is out of control; I’ll never be able to reach apples in those crazy high branches. Notice that the tree seems to reach out over the stepladder with only low branches on the opposite side of the trunk. Yes: the stepladder is on the south side of the tree. New growth follows the sun, particularly when you don’t prune each season.

7. Prune off branches that offend your sense of aesthetics or practicality. What do I mean? Aesthetics: does the tree suite your eye? Does it fit into your small kitchen garden’s landscape? Does it block a view you wish you had? Practicality: I hate ducking under branches when I mow the lawn; I don’t want my fruit trees to branch in the first six feet of trunk. You may not care about ducking, but does the tree block a window or shade a planting bed? Once you’ve taken care of the big problems (which may require a season or two of pruning), move on to shaping the trees so they make sense to you.

8. Don’t cut really thick branches if you can avoid it, and especially resist cutting the tree’s leader. A big scar stresses the tree and makes it more susceptible to disease. Cutting large branches may start the tree into decline.

9. Don’t paint pruning cuts with sealant or paint. These may prevent the tree from healing properly.

10. Don’t prune within one-year-old growth. The last few inches of a tree’s branches are the previous season’s delicate growth. Cut off some of it, and the rest might dry out and die. To shorten a branch, cut farther down the branch in the 2nd or 3rd year’s section. If there are spurs sticking out from the branch beyond the pruning point, you’re cutting within older growth.

Breaking Rules

Especially when you’re recovering an old, neglected tree, all of these guidelines come into play. But guideline number 8 will give you the greatest challenge. Three of the five fruit trees that came with our house were simply too messy; I cut several large branches to limit their height and encourage spreading and enlarging of the lower branches.

Caution When Shortening

When you cut a branch shorter to promote new growth, leave at least three leaf buds or branches between the cut and the point where the branch is attached. This gives the branch more chances to thrive; if you leave just one bud and it dies, the branch will likely go with it.

I did the most severe pruning in a tree I didn’t like. My thinking? If I kill it, I have one more excuse to cut it down. In that tree, I cut out the leader and several side branches that had grown as thick as the leader and ran parallel to it. These were five- and six-inch diameter trunks.

Most of the large cuts I made have healed well. However, the most severe cut didn’t heal, and the wood is rotting a hole into the tree. The tree isn’t in great health, and I expect it won’t outlive me (knock wood)… though I’m trying to engineer it for longer life.

If you’re going to cut such large branches:

1. Cut side branches close to the tree’s trunk with the saw blade running parallel to the trunk.

2. Cut the leader just above several healthy branches that can compete to replace the leader once it’s gone.

3. When cutting a vertical branch—particularly a very thick one, cut at a bias so you don’t leave a horizontal surface; water should run easily off of the newly-exposed wood.

It’s best to shape a tree when it’s young and keep it under control so you never have to cut branches more than an inch or two in diameter.

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4 Responses to “Prune Fruit Trees – 3: What and Why”

  • This was a good article, thank you. I am curious about when an ornamental fruit tree just simply grows too large for the spot it is in.
    Sometimes I see people cut all of the branches above the graft-cut them all the way to the quick…do you have anything to say about this?It looks very strange, and yet they do seem to grow back…

  • admin:

    Thanks for the kind words. I’m not fond of the practice of cutting back trees severely. It’s common around here to see mature maple, oak, and other 40+ foot trees with every branch cut short. They look hideous in winter, and somehow odd during the growing season.

    Making such dramatic cuts is gambling. The tree will probably survive given the healthy root system supplying a very small canopy. However, when you cut back large branches, and particularly the leader, you weaken the tree and provide many avenues for infection.

    If you love the oversized ornamental and want to keep it, sure: cut it back and keep your fingers crossed. If I had vote in the matter it would be this: remove the ornamental tree and plant a variety of fruit tree that won’t overgrow the available space. Don’t plant a tree that won’t provide food… this is about kitchen gardening, after all!

  • Good and valid points.
    However, for a long time i hear and have done so myself with no side effects contrary to your rule No 9, “Don’t paint pruning cuts with sealant or paint. These may prevent the tree from healing properly.

    Thank you
    Steve

  • Tracie:

    Good article but I have one comment about cutting large parallel braches. You need to make a small uppercut before cutting the branch from the top to avoid ripping the branch.

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