Whether you’re heading into winter or summer in your part of the world, now could well be the perfect time to consider fruit tree pruning at your place.
Pruning at just the right moment can help ensure a bigger and better fruit harvest, can make accessing your fruit yield easier in coming months (no more ladders to reach the top of ginormous trees) and can lead to healthier and more beautiful trees, and more resilience for you.
It’s part science, part feeling and in-the-moment decision-making – and a totally accessible skill for even the beginners.
A willingness to read, learn, observe and read some moreis essential, as well as learning a little bit about how fruit trees grow. But with just a few tools and a little conviction, it is possible to prune with confidence, and take excellent care of your dear fruit tree friends – year in, year out.
So – here we have a fruit tree pruning guide for you to consult and consider, and get you all skilled up and ready to go
Because pruning fruit trees is easy once you know how, but a foundational understanding is important. So let’s get you there, quick smart.
What is pruning, and why do we prune fruit trees?
First up – the basics.
Pruning involves the use of secateurs, loppers or pruning saws to remove unwanted plant material, in order to allow the fruit tree to continue to produce fruit in a way that’s healthy for the tree, and accessible to harvest.
Why are fruit trees pruned?
If you’re into foraging wild fruit and berries, you’ll likely have noticed that many wild fruit trees in our suburbs and country towns are never pruned or cared for – yet often produce vast quantities of fruit and flowers.
So – why do we prune?
Well, the expectations we place on berries and fruit trees for our homes or commercial orchards are often very different to the expectations we have of wild plants. For example – no matter what a wild tree looks like, no matter how poorly shaped or damaged or how small the fruit or how often it fruits, we are often so excited to find wild fruit that all other cares are forgotten.
But with fruit trees we have purchased and planted ourselves, those expectations often change.
Therefore we prune to achieve one or more of the following:
- Keep the fruit tree small and highly productive
- Increase fruit size, fruit yield and accessibility to that fruit
- Improve the structural strength of tree limbs to better support fruit
- Remove diseased parts and damage
- Remove branches that cross each other and cause congestion
- Increase light and airflow to prevent fungal diseases related to excess humidity in humid climates
- Maintain soft green stems which are useful for propagation
- To remove a ‘leader’ (apical bud – the tallest upright stem) in order to remove apical dominance and to encourage the tree to grow outwards (lateral growth).
A permaculture approach to fruit tree pruning
It’s worth noting – not all approaches to pruning are coming from a DIY, home-harvest perspective.
Commercial orchardists often prune trees heavily and create very wide open canopies, not only to access fruit but also to make chemical spraying easier – they try to ensure all foliage has made contact with sprays.
It’s important to understand that in a permaculture setting, where chemical sprays are not used, trees are best shaped to reflect the climate and fruit harvest needs.
In some contexts, that may mean less pruning, to prevent the plant being sunburnt (due to not enough foliage), or even pruning hashly to reduce the crop (so your little household isn’t overwhelmed with 60kg of apples at once).
The influence of photosynthesis on pruning decisions
Plants direct sugars produced during photosynthesis to different parts of the plant. Sugars are transported to increase plant height and assist with fruit set.
When pruning, you’re aiming to inform and assist this process. For example if fruit is the most important outcome for the next year (as opposed to fruit tree growth, perhaps), then pruning is carried out to reduce tree height – in favour of fruit set and fruit accessibility.
Pruning aims to maintain a balance between the number of fruit buds that develop and the amount of growth created by the tree – because this is growth which will produce fruit buds in the future. And because your fruit tree is a perennial plant, you want to think about future harvests as you prune for this year’s harvest. Balance in all things…
OK – so now let’s get into some of the more technical details.
Should I prune my fruit tree in summer or winter?
Stone fruits such as plums, cherries, peaches and apricots are best pruned in summer. (Stone fruits are identified by the distinctive single stone at the centre of the fruit.)
This is because these fruit trees, if pruned in winter, are very susceptible to a disease called Cytospora canker. This fungal disease attacks pruning cuts made in cold weather. So prune these trees in warm weather to give the wound sufficient healing time before deep winter.
Pome fruits such as apples, pears, quince, medlar, are generally pruned when plants are dormant in winter. (Pome means apple in French.)
Pomme fruits aren’t susceptible to Cytospora canker, so they’ll cope fine with pruning in cold weather. Pruning in winter is a good idea because your trees will have completely finished growing, are dormant and any pruning done then will produce lush new growth in spring.
A further note on summer pruning…
All fruit trees can be pruned in summer, too – but note that pruning while the tree is still actively growing will limit its growth. So, if you’re trying to reduce the size of a tree, summer pruning could be the way to go.
Understanding a tree’s growing features – leaders, laterals and sublateral
Understanding a tree’s growing features (morphology) helps you to really “see” your fruit tree and to make informed pruning cuts.
- Leaders are the longest, strongest branches – or the longest strongest branch in the centre of the tree.
- A lateral is any branch growing away from the central leader or leaders (where most fruit is formed).
- A sublateral is a stem growing from a lateral, essentially at the third level from the leader.
It is up to you to decide which stems will become your leaders. You can choose just one leader going directly up and at the centre of the tree (known as a central leader). Or you can choose multiple leaders – perhaps three, five or even 10. The choice will be based on the space you have and what you plan to do with the tree.
Is the main goal of the fruit tree to provide a harvest and to be able to access that harvest super efficiently? Or do you want a harvest but also a beautiful tree(s) that will provide shade and act as a feature in your orchard or garden?
Some commercial orchards produce fruit on one central leader. Others have two leaders that have been pruned to create a very wide V-shape. Others produce a vase shape by removing the central leader and keeping multiple laterals in a wide open, wine glass frame.
Again, be cautious about leaning too heavily on the methods of commercial growers, who often have chemical sprays to consider.
Instead, if your fruit trees have been planted to give you beauty, shade, and fruit, don’t prune too heavily. Your aim will be to reduce growth but not to the point where the tree canopy (the upper branches and leaves that provide shade) is totally compromised by a commercial orchard style V or Vase.
Your climate will also greatly influence your decisions.
In dry hot summers, you may not want a wide open fruit tree that lets lots of light in, as it may make the tree and fruit more susceptible to sunburn. But in a very humid, low-wind environment – you will want to open the tree up to reduce fungal diseases.
Helping your tree by reducing the effect of the tallest upright stem (apical dominance)
Apical dominance is the effect the tallest upright stem has on the potential for lateral stems below it to grow.
Remember – we want lateral stems to grow because these branches bear the most amount of fruit.
A tree trunk has many points of potential growth along it below the tallest upright (apical) stem. Many of these points are invisible, but appear the moment apical dominance is removed.
So, you may choose to reduce apical dominance by either:
- Cutting away the tallest vertical stem, or
- Pulling a stem down and tying it horizontally.
Whichever you choose, reducing apical dominance can help ensure more fruit yield lower down on the tree – where it’s easier to reach.
Deciding exactly where to cut your tree – by identifying fruit tree buds and fruiting spurs
First we must find out if our fruit tree is spur-bearing or tip-bearing. One of the key features that will help you decide where to cut when pruning fruit trees is the size and shape of buds.
If you can, have a go at determining if the bud you see is a:
Shooting bud: a thin flattish bud that will produce leaves and stem.
Fat fruit bud: a bud that looks fatter and rounder and sometimes fluffy, than a shooting bud and will produce a flower and therefore fruit (if pollinated).
Fruiting spur (also known as spur-bearer): a short stocky shoot close to leaders, that produces fruit and is spaced very closely to the next short stocky shoot. The internode (the space between two shoots) is very short as well. Fruiting spurs occur on apples, pears, cherry, pomegranate and plums.
If you’re hoping your pruning efforts will result in more fruit, try not to lop off too many fat fruit buds or fruiting spurs. Or, if you’re hoping to encourage your tree to grow into a different and more accessible shape, consider the direction shooting buds are pointing and cut accordingly.
Watch the video below for a really good overview of how to identify each different type of bud –
Will my fruit trees still yield fruit, even if I don’t prune?
Short answer – yes they will.
But to make harvesting easier in the long term, you will most likely want to prune your fruit trees every year.
A practical example: Pruning a new apple tree over three years, for easier access to fruit
We’ve gone through a lot of theory here, so let’s walk through an example of how you might approach the pruning of a new baby apple tree – if you purchased it as a bare-rooted tree from a nursery.
We’ll imagine the top priority for pruning is ‘easy access to fruit’. And let’s note that, generally speaking, apples produce fruit in their second or third year of growth.
First we must find out if our apple tree is spur-bearing or tip-bearing.
To accurately prune you must know if your apple variety is a spur-bearer or tip-bearer. This knowledge is used when pruning your new apple tree from its third year – or when pruning any mature apple tree.
Most apple varieties are spur-bearers – they produce trees with a tidy compact appearance and produce lots of spurs on wood two years and older.
Other varieties however produce fruit in clusters near or at the tip – and thus are known as tip-bearers. Tip bearers produce very few fruiting spurs, are more sparse in appearance and have fewer spurs.
So, if you’re purchasing a new bare-rooted baby tree, ask which type it is.
Or, if you’re pruning a mature tree, look for spurs before pruning (they’re more visible on apple trees at two years or older). If you can’t spot any, your variety is most likely a tip-bearer.
Year 1 – winter pruning your bare-rooted apple tree
When purchasing a bare-rooted apple tree, the nursery may cut the leaders back by two-thirds when you buy the tree, or they may not. Ask them if you are not sure.
If the tree was pruned by the nursery, you will receive a tree with very short branches and with only two to three main stems that form the ‘framework’ of the tree. The cuts will have been made to a bud facing directly upwards (ideally) and outwards from the tree.
If the tree you have bought has very long skinny stems, then it is up to you to cut back the stems by two-thirds and to a bud pointing upwards and outwards. But why? Let’s discuss that a bit later.
In spring, these apple trees will produce only leaves – because apple trees do not produce fruit on the first year’s growth.
Year 2 – winter pruning your apple tree
By Year 2, the aim is to keep building the framework of the tree, to strengthen stems by cutting them shorter and giving them more time to thicken up before they are expected to bear fruit, and to keep fruit-bearing parts as close as possible to the leaders that form the framework.
To achieve this, choose about seven to 10 lateral branches and cut them back to half their length.
These 10 laterals will form the new ‘framework’. Other shoots, such as leaders and sublaterals should be pruned back to about five buds.
Then, to clear the frame and stem clutter, remove any other shoots that overlap back to the stem.
Year 3 – winter pruning your apple tree according to whether it’s spur-bearing or winter-tip bearing
Year 3 is that pivotal moment in which you need to know whether your apple tree is a spur-bearer or a winter-tip bearer – and prune accordingly.
So, if you have a spur-bearing variety – prune branch leaders by a quarter of the previous year’s growth.
Prune strong laterals – those you want to keep because they don’t look spindly, skinny and weak – back to six buds. But prune weak laterals – those that you want to thicken up – back to three buds.
Also remove any laterals that cross over other branches – cut them back flush to the stem.
If you have a tip-bearing variety – prune the branch leaders by a quarter, as you would with tip-bearing apple trees – but DON’T prune the laterals. The tips of the laterals is where most of the fruit will set so removing them would cut off next season’s fruit.
Remove only laterals that look very weak.
Why have we pruned the apple tree in this way?
In the first two years of the tree’s growth, we wanted to focus on shaping the tree, increasing it’s strength by allowing leaders to thicken and shortening the length of those leaders.
If we don’t shorten the leaders and allow the second year’s growth to grow on unpruned first year leaders – then we have allowed the tree to grow taller than it needs to be for the purpose of fruit production.
Then year three comes around with new growth – if that too goes unpruned, then the arms of the tree grow longer and longer, and soon enough the fruit will be beyond our reach.
Answers to fruit tree pruning frequently asked questions
Why are bare-rooted trees pruned just after planting?
When a bare-rooted tree is first purchased in winter, the tree height won’t be well matched to its root size. This is because it will have been grown in a pot or closely planted in the field with little room for roots to expand. The tree will have been well watered and fed and ‘nursed’. Once out of its crib and planted, you will still care for it, but not quite so vigorously. It is at this time that you will make your first prune.
Why should we prune back to just three buds or six buds?
With weak stems, we prune back harder to help that stem get thicker, so that it can better support future fruit weight. We cut it back to three buds to give the tree three chances to form a new vegetative shoot, a shoot that produces a leaf followed by a stem. If the first and second bud fail to produce a new shoot, then the third bud is bound to succeed.
For stems that are thick and therefore structurally sound, we prune back less hard, to six buds. That way we have six buds that can produce potential laterals – and it is on laterals that fruit is produced.
How do we know if a tree is two or more years old?
Every season the tree puts on new growth and then comes to a stop. At the stop the tree develops a terminal bud, and a bulging line.
You can use this to tell the age of your tree. Run your hand along the central leader and up and up until you can feel a raised textured surface that circles the stem. This is where growth has stopped and the next year’s growth has occurred.
Each time you find a bulge – it represents a year’s growth.
Why do I need to know the age of my young fruit tree?
Fruit trees start to produce fruit in their second or third year (if dwarf varieties) or any time after those first initial years. They don’t produce fruit in the first year. Some fruit trees also then produce fruit only on new-season growth.
Hence before pruning any fruit tree find out:
- In which year is this fruit tree likely to produce its first fruit, and
- Does this tree, once it has started fruiting, only produce fruit on new season’s growth?
Only though knowing this can you prune in an informed way.
Apply the apple tree story to other trees – but with lots of exceptions
The apple tree example was given to help with the overall understanding of the thinking that underpins pruning. But fruit trees all have different details that change the chapters in the story.
Hence, find out the particulars of the fruit tree you are pruning.
At the end of this article we provide a list of questions you need to ask and answer (through research: take a look through a good book or ask google), to help you find answers that specifically relate to the fruit tree you are pruning.
Shaping and training fruit trees – the overall pruning aim
Your overall aim is to create large angles on laterals. Large angles are better at supporting fruit weight and help open up the tree to reduce congestion.
Therefore when making a cut, look for buds that are pointing up and away from the central leader, or leaders.
More fruit tree pruning key know-how
Pruning dead or damaged branches
This is the very easiest part of pruning. If a branch is damaged or dead then making a cut only requires the smallest amount of know how.
The easiest way to check if a branch is dead is to scratch a very small area of the stem back with your nail. If that branch/stem is alive it:
- Will be very easy to scratch the surface.
- The scratch will reveal a distinctly green layer underneath.
If it’s dead it will be hard to scratch the surface, because it has dried and become very woody and you will not see a layer of lush green underneath.
In this case, cut the stem right back. Place your secateurs with the narrow part of the blade closest to the base of the cut. Cut on a slight angle – not a large angle or you will expose too much of open wound.
Likewise, if you can see a visibly broken branch, cut the stem right back flush, just as you would with a dead branch.
Pruning low-growing branches
Pruning low growing branches (lower than 1m) allows you to access the tree more easily – although in some landscapes where rabbits are a problem, it may be best to leave them.
When we clear the central leader of the lowest-growing branches in a rabbit-rich environment, come winter the rabbits will chew the bark on the central leader to access sugars just beneath the bark (phloem). This can kill the tree by reducing its access to this important winter food.
Pruning fruit tree suckers
Most fruit trees are grafted trees – excellent fruiting varieties grafted on the top of a rootstock known to grow vigorously and strongly.
Sometimes, even if the graft is successful, shoots are sent up from the rootstock – these are called suckers. Cut these suckers off as close as possible to the central leader, to prevent them taking over or stealing nutrients.
The must-have tools for pruning fruit trees
If you have fruit trees then you will need a few key pruning tools – or borrow them from a neighbour or your local tool library (if your area has one).
Secateurs: use these only for small cuts. You will break them if you use them on bigger cuts, or you may damage the stem you are cutting if it is too large.
Loppers: excellent for bigger stems, with long handles for extra grip and force.
Pruning saw: for extra-large branches or difficult-to-access branches.
Pruning knife: for cleaning bad cuts. These allow you to scrape back tree cuts that did not produce a clean crisp edge.
Questions to ask yourself before making any cuts
So – you’ve bought your first bare-rooted fruit tree, or a fruit tree in a pot, or you have access to an established tree. Hooray.
Before you start lopping away, you will benefit from considering the following:
- Identify the tree, if you didn’t buy it yourself.
- Find out how old the tree is by looking for growth marks.
- If you’re buying a young tree, ask if it has been pruned at point of sale or if you need to prune before planting.
- Find out in which year it bares fruit (first, second, third, fifth).
- Does it produce fruit on new-season growth?
- Is a tip bearer or spur bearer? Or does it produce fruiting buds as opposed to spurs?
- Is it a dwarf fruit tree?
- Does it need a second tree from the same species to pollinate fruit?
- What shape best suits that tree and the climate it will grow in?
- Do you want the tree for fruiting purposes only or to create shade and beauty in the garden?
- If it’s a mature tree, does it need a major pruning rejuvenation?
The answers to these questions will help ensure you make cuts that are just right for a bigger and better fruit harvest, healthier and more beautiful trees, and more resilience for you.
- Organic Fruit Growing Your Complete Guide to Producing Beautiful Fruit All Year Round by Annette McFarlane.
- Pruning & Training What, When, and How to Prune by UK Royal Horticultural Society experts, Christopher Brickell and David Joyce.
- The Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia by Louis Glowinski.
- The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips.
- Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier.
- Years to Fruiting graph to help you understand when different types of fruit trees will start offering a harvest.
- Woodbridge Fruit Trees’ excellent pruning articles.
- How to prune stone fruit trees in summer by Gardening Australia.
- Expert tips for winter pruning and practical tool maintenance by Gardening Australia.
- Pruning fruit trees: shoot structure and growth – a helpful 30-minute video to help you understand what you’re seeing on the trunk and branches of your fruit trees.
About the author: Mara Ripani is a permaculture educator who has worked for CERES Community Environment Park and local government. From her property ORTO in Victoria, Australia, Mara teaches preserving and fermenting, plus how to make sourdough bread, soap and pasta.