Are you confused about pruning your fruit trees?

You’re not alone. It’s one of the biggest worries for home fruit growers. Many are not sure when to prune, how to prune, or even which trees they should prune.

How would you feel to learn that there’s no such thing as “right” or “wrong” when it comes to pruning, just cuts and consequences?

Relieved, right?

When it comes to teaching people how to prune, that’s our approach. We find it instantly removes a lot of the stress about having to get pruning “right”, and replaces it with a curiosity about how a fruit tree responds when you prune in particular ways.

And that’s a great starting point for learning how to prune.

Using principles instead of rules makes pruning fruit trees much easier. Photo credit: Janet Barker
Using principles instead of rules makes pruning fruit trees much easier. Photo credit: Janet Barker

Why should you prune your fruit trees?

Pruning is not actually needed for a tree to bear fruit. In fact, the fastest way to get a new tree to bear fruit is not to prune it at all.

But while it’s tempting to get fruit from your trees as quickly as possible, it’s a bad idea for lots of reasons.

The first and most important reason to prune your trees is to establish a strong framework for the tree. This is particularly important for the first three or so years after you plant a fruit tree, and it’s a specialised area of pruning called “establishment pruning”.

Pruning also helps improve air circulation in the tree, and that helps to prevent disease. It allows more sun to get into the tree, which keeps it healthy and more fruitful.

From a practical point of view, pruning keeps the tree at the right height and shape for its location. You can also make sure the fruit will form on branches that you can actually reach. This makes thinning and picking much easier.

Overall, pruning improves the quality of your fruit.

We also recommend learning more about the different parts of your fruit tree here and learning how to tell the difference between fruit buds and leaf buds here.

It’s also a good idea to invest in a good pair of secateurs, like these ones (and no, we don’t get a kickback, we just like these secateurs. They also come in a left-handed version.)

Are there reasons not to prune your fruit tree?

As we already mentioned, pruning your tree can delay fruiting in your tree. It can also reduce the yield of fruit, and create smaller trees.

These are often cited as reasons not to prune, but we actually think they’re all good things!

Harvesting a smaller crop of fruit that’s better quality is by far preferable to harvesting a large crop of small, poor quality fruit, or trying to harvest fruit from the top of a massive tree. And it’s much better for your tree.

How do trees respond to pruning?

Fruit trees are always in balance between the parts of the tree that are below the ground (i.e., the roots) and the parts of the tree above the ground (the trunk, branches etc.).

Pruning changes that balance. The tree responds by growing more shoots, until the balance is re-established.

Usually, the regrowth is stimulated near where the cuts were made. The more pruning cuts you make and the more wood you remove from the tree, the more you stimulate a more generalised response, where growth is stimulated across the whole tree.

Basically, more pruning = more regrowth.

Understanding the principles behind pruning

Here at Grow Great Fruit HQ, we steer clear of pruning “rules”. Here’s just some we’ve heard over the years include:

“always remove 1/3 of the branch”

“don’t prune in summer”

“prune after fruiting”

“remove all side-shoots that are bigger than 1/3 the diameter of the main branch”

“remove all shoots that are growing into the middle of the tree”

Confused, much?

The truth is that some of these “rules” apply to some trees, some of the time. (We would never suggest removing all the shoots that grow into the middle of the tree, and have seen many trees damaged as a result of this practice.)

A dwarf peach tree is very different to an enormous plum tree - but the principles are the same no matter what type of fruit tree you're pruning
A dwarf peach tree is very different to an enormous plum tree – but the principles are the same no matter what type of fruit tree you’re pruning

Fruit trees are all different, so we think it’s much safer and more effective to learn the principles behind pruning. Then you can apply these same principles to pretty much all fruit trees, all the time.

  • Remove dead and diseased wood
  • Prune as little as possible to maintain the right shape
  • Prune in winter to encourage growth
  • Trim your trees in summer to slow growth
  • Heading cuts create branching
  • Sap flows most strongly to the highest part of the tree
  • Horizontal wood produces more fruit than vertical wood
  • Encourage fruit to grow close to the trunk and main limbs
  • Prune young trees when you plant them
  • Remove suckers when pruning

The difference between heading cuts and thinning cuts

Heading cuts are any cuts that remove the end of a shoot or limb. The bud on the tip of any shoot is called the “apical” bud, and a heading cut removes this bud.

This heading cut is likely to stimulate the two or three buds directly below the cut to grow into new branches
This heading cut is likely to stimulate the two or three buds directly below the cut to grow into new branches

The job of the apical bud is to prevent the buds below it from growing into shoots.

As soon as you understand that, it’s pretty obvious what will happen next if you make a heading cut that removes this bud.

Yep, you’ll create branching.

That’s not good or bad, it’s just the likely consequence of this type of cut.

Shortening a lateral with a thinning cut. Note the shoot left behind on the tree with apical bud intact.
Shortening a lateral with a thinning cut. Note the shoot left behind on the tree with apical bud intact.

There are a couple of different types of thinning cuts. They can be used to remove entire shoots or branches, or to cut back to a lateral shoot or spur. The point is to leave the apical bud intact at the end of the branch or shoot that you’re working on.

As you can immediately tell, thinning cuts are much calmer. It’s a great technique for removing wood from your fruit tree without stimulating lots of new growth.

This is powerful knowledge! Now you know how to create more branching in your fruit tree, and also how to prevent creating branching where you don’t want it.

The Grow Great Fruit foolproof 7-step pruning method

Now, we can bring all the information together into this very simple 7-step method.

  1. Remove dead or diseased wood.
  2. Look at the tree and imagine what shape you want it to be – if you’re not sure, the “vase” shape suits most backyards. There’s more information about different tree shapes including espalier in our Pruning by Numbers ebook.
  3. Identify the permanent limbs. Do any major limbs or branches need removing? If you’re not sure, leave them for now. The first time you prune your tree it may be difficult to identify the permanent limbs, but the more you apply this method year after year, the more obvious it becomes.
  4. Choose the easiest looking limb. Starting at the top of the limb, define and cut the leader to the right height. Use a thinning cut so you don’t create branching in the top of your tree. Aim to keep the top of your branches quite simple.
  5. Work your way very methodically down the limb. At each lateral (side shoot) growing from the branch, stop and make a decision about what to do with it. There are only three choices! Either leave it alone, shorten it, or remove it. Don’t remove a lateral if there are no others growing nearby, as this creates bare patches with no fruiting wood on the limb. (PRO TIP: don’t do the same thing to each lateral.)
  6. Do the next limb, and methodically work your way around the tree.
  7. To finish, remove any suckers that are growing from below the graft union.

And that’s it! If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. While you’re learning, it can be really helpful to take lots of photos of your tree. Take ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot, but more importantly, take photos of the same tree in spring and summer after you’ve pruned.

That’s where you really get to see the consequences of your cuts. And that’s where the gold is.