Saturday, February 27, 2021
Feb. 27, 2021

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Gardening with Allen: How to prune fruit trees


I read that I should prune my fruit trees every year. Mine have not been pruned for several years. Could you please explain how and when to prune fruit trees?

Fruit trees should be pruned every year. The best time to prune is late winter or early spring before they start to grow. Pruning fruit trees is quite different from pruning shade and other ornamental trees. The goal is to produce good yields of high quality fruit that is relatively easy to pick. Most fruit trees are grafted onto semidwarf root stocks. Semidwarf trees can be kept in a size range of 10 to 12 feet with regular yearly pruning. Without yearly pruning they will often grow twice that height or more. Most of the fruit is then not within easy reach and must be harvested with a ladder. Trees on true dwarf root stocks can be kept even shorter.

Without yearly pruning, fruit trees develop a very thick branching system. Upper and inner branches shade lower branches. Without adequate light, lower branches quit bearing fruit.

Fruit develops best on branches that are relatively horizontal. Upright, vertical branches do not bear as much fruit. Inner branches, especially those growing toward the center of the tree, also bear little fruit.

If your trees have not been pruned for several years, you may need to remove some rather large branches. Large vertical branches above 10 feet (or even 6 feet in younger trees) may need to be shortened back to an outward growing branch. Inner branches may need to be removed back to their origin from the trunk. The idea is to have fewer branches so that light reaches all of them.

Any branch growing straight up (other than the main trunk) should be removed. Where branches rub against each other, one should be removed. Outward facing branches are favored over those that grow upward or inward. When pruned yearly, about 20 to 30 percent of the branches should be removed. More than that will need to be removed if they have not been pruned for several years.

When pruned properly (especially if they have not been pruned for a while), most fruit trees will develop a lot of upright branches referred to as “water sprouts” after pruning. The best time to remove water sprouts is early to mid-June when they are less than a foot long. When young and soft, they can be easily snapped off without pruners. This is actually the preferred method of removing them.

Do not prune fruit trees by shortening the branches. This just makes them grow thicker. In most cases entire branches should be removed back to where they are attached to a larger branch.