Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pruning a Fruit Tree 101

Warm, sunny winter days are perfect for pruning fruit trees. The lack of snow and ice reduces the danger inherent in walking around, climbing, and cutting a tree with a pruning saw in your hand. Additionally, the lack of leaves and fruit on the trees helps you to easily identify which limbs to cut. It also is healthier for the tree because the sap is not flowing yet which allows the cut to heal better.

The first place to start is to cut every tiny sucker coming of the trunk and main branches. These suckers do nothing but sap energy from the tree. The photograph below is an examples of a sucker.

Once all of the suckers are cut, the next step is to cut all limbs that are growing perpendicularly straight up from a main branch. In other words, if a limb is growing straight up from a main branch rather than diagonally upward and outward, it should be cut. Depending on how long it has been since the tree was last pruned, these limbs can be small, medium, or large. Some are so large that they have many more limbs growing off them. Regardless of their size, they should be cut. The photos below show examples of small, medium and large limbs that are growing perpendicularly straight up from a main branch and that should be cut.

A small limb growing perpendicularly straight up from a main branch.

A medium limb growing perpendicularly straight up from a main branch.

An example of large limbs growing perpendicularly straight up from a main branch.

In this photo, Ken is cutting large limbs growing perpendicularly straight up from a main branch. This photo was taken about half way through this tree's pruning.

The final and longest step in pruning a tree is to cut out the limbs that criss-cross each other or that are tangled up (see close up example of criss crossing above). This tangling is undesirable because it does not allow enough air and sunlight to circulate in and around the tree, especially once the leaves and fruit start to develop later in the spring. Additionally, when there is an excessive number of limbs on a tree, the energy created from the photosynthesis process is used to support the numerous branches rather than the fruit. This results in smaller fruit at harvest time. In the photo above, the limbs growing diagonally upward will be cut out.

The above photo is an example of many limbs criss crossing and tangling. Approximately half of these limbs, especially the ones growing diagonally upward, will be cut out. This part of the pruning process is more art than science because it requires a good eye. Sometimes it can be done by cutting only a small limb. Other times it requires larger cuts or even the removal of an entire branch.

Ken is almost done pruning this last tree. As you can see, this lower branch has limbs growing both perpendicularly upward and criss crossing with the limbs growing from the above branches. Although it is clear that more pruning is necessary on this tree, it is also important not to remove more than 30% of the tree at one time because it will shock the tree, so this tree is done for this year. Next year, Ken will cut and remove the majority of the limbs on this lower branch, and then the pruning job will be complete.


  1. How old does a tree have to be before you start pruning it?
    I have several that are not more than head tall, mostly one stem/trunk. Planted only in the last year or two.
    Just curious.

  2. Linda - The earlier you prune a tree, the easier the task will be. The trees on our friends orchard are probably 70 years old. Many of them hadn't been pruned in a long time, so we have a lot of work to do. That's why we have so many big branches to trim. Just remember when pruning to not take more than a third of the tree each year. On a one year old tree, that may mean a couple of branches. Start shaping it now with a vision in mind how you want the tree to look.

  3. Thanks for the information and the pictures, too, Ken. They helped a lot with what you were saying.