Pruning Fruit Trees

Right now is the optimal time to prune your fruit trees.  You want to prune during the winter while fruit trees are dormant; however, you should avoid pruning when temperatures are below freezing.  The key to keeping trees looking beautiful and productive is annual pruning. 

Professional arborists might tell you that pruning is an art that takes years of study and practice to master, but that’s simply not the case.  Here are three simple steps that I was taught by my grandmother.  I still have fond memories of her setting on the porch guiding me to cut specific branches.


Step 1: Clean Up

  • Look for branches that fit “The Three D’s” and remove them:
    • Dead
    • Damaged
    • Diseased


  • Remove “suckers”.  Most fruit trees are created by grafting the top of one variety to the root stock of another.  Suckers won’t produce good fruit if any at all.  (Also, don’t be a sucker!)
  • Look for perfectly straight sprouts coming from the main branches.  These are called “water sprouts”.  Remove them too.
  • Important:  All of these cuts should be made flush with the parent branch.


Step 2: Thin Out

Thinning allows both air and light into the canopy.  This, in turn, helps increase yield and reduces the potential for disease and pest problems.

  • Remove any branches growing downward, toward the center of the tree, or crossing paths with another branch.
  • Thin the remaining branches to leave 6-12 inches of space around them.  Choose the healthiest, best looking branches with an angle close to 45 degrees relative to the trunk.  Wider angles can cause fruit laden limbs to break, and narrower angles cause at tree to become bushy.
  • Important:  All of these cuts should also be made flush with the parent branch.


Step 3: Head Back

In this last step, you will basically give the tree a haircut.  Prune back the outermost growth so the branches become shorter and thicker as they grow.  This helps prevent snapping when they are loaded down with fruit.

You’ll want to remove 20 to 30 percent of the new growth. Depending on the tree species, this can range from a few inches to a few feet!

Unlike previous steps, these cuts will only be made part of the way down the branch.  The exact placement of the cuts are important too.  Only cut back to a point ¼ inch above a bud that faces the direction you want that branch to grow in the coming year.  For example, if there is a branch close by on the right, prune back to a bud on the left side of the branch.


Additional Tips:

  • Sharp pruners work wonders.  Be sure to sharpen them regularly.  Also, oil them to prevent rust.
  • Disinfect pruning equipment with isopropyl alcohol before moving between trees to prevent the potential for spreading disease.
  • Burn branches to prevent the spread of disease.  This is a common precaution taken in vineyards.  Also, a bonfire is quite nice on cold winter nights.  Of course, check your local laws before you burn.
  • Don’t use pruning paint or other sealers.  Just don’t.  This could be a whole blog post in itself.  For now just trust me that in most cases it does more harm than good.


That’s all there is to it!  Just remember that pruning takes time.  Don’t get discouraged if your trees are particularly unruly.  Just work at it a little bit at a time, and remember to take time every few minutes to look at the tree as a whole.  Soon you’ll have beautiful, productive fruit trees.