FRUIT PRUNING TIPS
If dependable, annual crops of large juicy fruit are what you want from your fruit trees, then pruning as they grow and annual maintenance pruning is a must. Unpruned trees often produce only occasional crops of smaller, inferior quality fruit. Pruning to develop strong, well spaced branches, that can handle heavy loads of ripe fruit is critical.
When fruit trees are purchased as two-year old bare root whips, they should be pruned. At planting, cut the main whip stem back by up to one third at a fat bud and prune side branches until you have removed about a third of the total wood. Also, trim away any broken or damaged roots. This will help balance the branch structure with the remaining roots and get your tree off to a healthier start. If you buy a fruit tree with the roots balled in burlap, less pruning is needed since more roots remain. Should the tree be container grown, prune for shape and form only. Always remove damaged branches on any new tree.
Second and third year pruning determines shape and prevents development of bad crotches. Pruning of fruit trees is best done during the dormant period. Summer pruning, except for the removal of water sprouts or “suckers”, tends to weaken the trees. The first year the height of the lowest branches should be established by cutting off ones that grow lower down on the trunk than desired. The remaining side limbs may be shortened but retained, if well distributed. No more than two should be left that arise near any one point on the trunk because of the danger of crowding and splitting later on.
After the second year, attention should be directed to shaping the tree and the removal of growth that crowds, competes with or injures the main limbs of the tree.
As fruit trees grow older more pruning may be needed to keep the branches well balanced. This kind of pruning will be thinning out.
Fruit trees are usually pruned according to one of three generally recognized forms. Each is created by pruning different groups of main and side branches into different patterns of growth best suited to specific purposes.
Central Leader – Apples and pears, which bear heavy fruit, are often trained to form a central leader. This system encourages one main trunk with strong side branches. Maintain open space between limbs and thin secondary branches to allow sunlight and air to reach the center of the tree. As the trees age, it is possible to switch to a modified central leader training which requires less annual pruning. In orchards, these trees are sometimes pruned to a lower and wider modified leader form from the start. Much depends on how you want the tree to look in your yard.
Modified Leader - Begin pruning the same way as the central leader form with one strong central trunk. In the second or third year allow more than one strong branch to grow forming several leaders. The modified leader system may be easier to maintain since many fruit trees tend to grow this way naturally. It is recommended for cherries and plums.
Open Vase – This method opens up the center of the tree to let light and air in but can create weaker branches and is not recommended for apples and pears. It works well for peaches, nectarines and apricots. Avoid several limbs growing from nearly the same point on the trunk or weak crotches will result. Space the principal limbs out over as much area of the trunk as possible.
A fruit tree often sets more fruit in the spring than it can easily handle. If you want large high quality fruit then you must thin groups of young fruit to a single fruit. This should be done while the fruit is still small. Space the fruit an average of 6 inches apart. Thinning is time consuming but helps considerably if you want quality, larger fruit.
Fruit trees bear fruit on either one year old limbs or on stubby growths between branches called spurs.
Pears, plums and cherries produce fruit on spurs. Peaches on one year old limbs and apples on both. Limb-bearing fruit trees produce more new limbs each year. Some of the older limbs that bore last year’s fruit should be pruned off. Peach, nectarine and apricot trees will produce more on new limbs near the top of the tree. Keep them pruned down so you can reach the fruit.
Trees that bear fruit on spurs produce fewer new limbs and can be kept in shape with less pruning. It is still a good idea to thin them regularly and remove some three year or older spurs to encourage growth or new spurs.
Citrus fruit trees should not be pruned until all danger of frost has passed. Citrus trees lose productivity as they age but in areas without frigid winters, they can withstand severe rejuvenation pruning. After such pruning be prepared to wait two to three years for good fruit production to resume. If in a colder climate area, spread drastic pruning out over several years.