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A Guide to Pruning Fruit Trees
Learn to prune your trees responsibly and effectively in this tutorial with Sustainable Gardening Expert Alex Grover.
Spring is an itchy time of year. One morning it’s gloriously warm and hopeful, and the crocuses have poked their heads from the ground. The next morning has frozen the poor, eager buds with frigid squalls. It’s the time of year when you have just enough pleasant days to pull the yard into shape before things really start blooming.
This is the first spring in my new home. One of the things I love about the home is the yard — a wide, grassy area surrounded by fruit trees, giving our family some privacy and also a delicious, bountiful yield come summer and fall.
Well, let’s limit that to summer because last fall, we had a total of twelve apples on our biggest apple tree.
Pretty much the entire crop. A few singles around and about.
Perhaps twenty grew on another, and thirty on the third. These are big trees and they want to be bigger. They grew five-plus feet last year with a scalp full of suckers.
Sucker is a common name, but the technical term is water sprout. See all the skinny branches growing straight up at the top? These are a type of new growth that won’t produce fruit until year three, and they’re all competing for light.
Healthily pruned fruit trees don’t need to compete because you’ve given them ample space to produce.
For all their size, the trees couldn’t produce apples because 1) they were competing with each other for space and light, and 2) they’d been chopped straight off at the top in the past, instead of pruned to allow light to penetrate their branches.
It could be the trees would produce better this year… sometimes you’ll get an “off” year and then an “on” year from shoring themselves up in between. But with a smart eye and smart pruning, you can encourage your trees to become healthy fruit bearers every year.
We called a professional landscaping expert to educate us on proper pruning techniques, and Alex Grover, a wonderful, knowledgable gentleman from Utah Sustainable Gardening, spent a chilly evening with us guiding us through how to help our trees.
This is what he saw.
Gardeners see the world differently. It’s their superpower… in addition to hefting sneakily oversized branches.
Sometimes with all those branches, it isn’t easy to see what to cut. Especially from an inside view.
But if you step back and see the tree from a distance, then apply certain rules to your pruning, you’ll do a lot better than if you just start lopping. As a first-time tree pruner, I found it easiest to understand which branches to remove using Concepts and a photo.
Applied sketching. When you start “doing” something, you start seeing it deeper so you can do it better.
I dialed down the image opacity to 25%, studied the tree, and started to experiment with where to cut. Suddenly, I could see the whole tree and make sense of the structure, and from here, I could apply Alex’s guiding principles to properly pruning your fruit trees.
1. Invest in quality tools.
Very sharp Corona pruning saw, nice Hickok loppers, old Fiskars clippers that need replacing, and IFA leather gloves.
- Pruning saw — Corona has a great quality tool and holds its edge for years. Their one weakness is that their nuts come loose. Treat the bolts with Locktight bolt glue and you’ll never have a problem.
- Loppers — Try another Corona or just look for a thick steel blade that is forged, not stamped out of sheet metal. Our local gardening store didn’t have Corona loppers but they had the blue Hickok and they’re quality.
- Clippers — Alex’s good old Martha Stewart clippers have worked for 12 years and counting. Fiskars like mine seem to lose their edge quickly.
- Good, thick gloves — Do yourself a favor and keep your limbs while you’re removing the trees’ limbs. Even Alex’s thick leather gloves were shredded and his hands held scars. Take the tools seriously.
2. Timing. Prune before the tree blooms or afterward, but never when the flowers are out. When a tree is blooming, it’s pouring all of its energy into reproduction instead of defense. Allow your tree to love and be loved.
Prune this, not this.
3. Good pruning is long term.
You can take 25% of the wood off an apple or pear tree each year. Peaches and cherries can lose up to 50%, but Alex usually likes to do less. Our trees need some major rebalancing and there’s always new growth to account for each year, so it’ll take longer than a couple years to clean up these guys.
Well, don’t trim here exactly.
Step back and look at your tree. Decide which branches are most important to remove first, then decide what can be done next year, and the year after. Always prune in this order:
- Dead wood. This stuff goes first so the bacteria and fungus in charge of decomposing the wood don’t spread to the rest of your tree.
Dead and gone.
- Broken branches. Broken branches can’t hold fruit and are a drain on the tree. And the bark might peel, leaving spots open to disease and pests.
Split down the middle.
- Rubbing branches. Rubbing branches grow into each other and ultimately weaken each other. Plus the bark rubs off, leaving tender, unprotected spots for disease to set in.
When you remove one badly rubbing branch from another, you see this.
- Crossing branches. Crossing branches compete with each other structurally as they grow, as well as rub open wounds through the bark. You want your tree to spread outward without competition, so that every branch can have good access to sunlight and produce healthy fruit.
Can you spot all the crossing branches here? You want to remove the ones that are dangerous to each other.
4. If you haven’t maxed out your tree’s capacity yet, consider the second tier of priorities.
- Remove low hanging branches. These hang low enough you’ll bump your head on them, and hang even lower when packed with fruit, making it easy for those pests to reach them and feast.
This Asian pear branch was so loaded with fruit last fall it sat right on the ground. Great fruit until it gets eaten by birds, ants and wasps. It’s a big tree, we won’t miss one branch.
- Think about opening up the tree. Sunlight will encourage your apple, pear, and cherry branches to grow spurs, which carry the fruit. Redirect branch growth to spread outward instead of upward, so that the maximum amount of sun can shine in. Use an artistic eye to consider how you’d like it to spread.
Keep weighing your options. Ask, “Shall I remove this branch or this one? What will be the result if I do?”
- Start micromanaging the smaller branches. Trim away suckers you don’t want, always removing the crossing, rubbing ones first. Think of how your tree will look all leafed out in summer, and prune to allow the light to shine in.
Lots of water sprouts, and each one will leaf out fully. Think about thinning some of these babies out.
5. When pruning, you can either remove the whole branch or redirect the branch’s growth.
- When you remove a whole branch, always cut above the collar and in line with the lenticels on the bark. The collar is a big part of the immune system of the tree — it contains anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents to protect the main system.
Basic cutting anatomy.
- When wood branches off into two or three directions (just what trees do), the main leader will be thicker. If you want to redirect the growth to the thinner branch, that branch must be at least 33% of the original size. Otherwise it’ll be too weak to handle its new job.
Do you see which is the leader?
6. The last incredibly important principle: when you’re ready to cut the tree, follow the three-cut rule. This rule prevents the sudden trauma of a falling branch from injuring your tree.
- First, about a foot from the collar of the branch, undercut halfway up through the wood.
- Second, 1 to 6 inches upward from that undercut, overcut all the way through the branch.
- Third, cut the remainder of the branch away, above the collar.
The photo between steps 2 and 3 is an example of how the sudden weight of the branch partway through cutting will sabotage the tree. The three-cut rule keeps this trauma from happening at the collar of the branch.
Thanks to these guiding principles and techniques, my trees now look so much healthier. It took me about three hours to prune the left two trees. Admittedly, that was with a camera dangling from my neck to capture photos. The right tree began to bloom before I could tackle it so that will have to wait until later.
Compare the left two trees with the messy one on the right. 25% less wood makes a big difference.
Overall, I feel like I’ve bonded with my trees. I know what to look for and understand how to help them become productive fruit bearers thanks to Alex’s guiding smarts. As you follow these principles, you’ll definitely find similar success. Best of luck with your pruning!
Huge thanks to Alex Grover for his expertise. The world is a more beautiful place through his gifts of time and knowledge. For many more resources on caring for your landscaping this spring, follow him on Facebook.
Some other great resources on caring for your trees:
Arbor Day Foundation is a mine of information on trees — http://arbordayblog.org/askanarborist/ask-arborist-abcs-pruning/
DIY Network on pruning apple trees — http://www.diynetwork.com/how-to/outdoors/gardening/pruning-apple-trees
DIY Network on pruning other types of trees— http://www.diynetwork.com/how-to/outdoors/gardening/pruning-trees-and-shrubs
Gardening Know How has tons of useful articles for all sorts of fruits and shrubs — https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/fruits/
If you have projects that involve Concepts, please share your creativity with us! Send your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Informed and edited by Alex Grover.
Pruned, photographed and written by Erica Christensen.
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