Pruning & Training
Young trees are pruned to train them to become structurally sound, to make them easy to care for and to ensure the production of high quality fruit. Pruning will:
- Control size for easier care in maintaining and picking fruit
- Increase strength – develop strong limb structure
- Distribute sunlight evenly throughout tree
- Regulate fruit bearing – removes excess fruitwood
- Renew fruitwood – to continue strong buds and flowers
- Remove undesirable wood- dead, broken, and crossing branches.
The optimum time of year to prune fruit trees is the dormant season, December, January (best) and until the middle of February, but note summer schedule for Apricots.
There are two types of pruning cuts:
- Thinning cuts are used to remove lateral branches at their origin or to shorten branch length by cutting to another lateral that is a minimum of 1/3 the width of the branch section being removed. Lateral cuts should be angled and done just outside of the branch bark ridge and branch collar. Cutting into the branch collar can damage the plant and cause decay.
- Heading cuts are when a plant is cut back to a stub, lateral bud or small lateral branch. When heading back to a lateral bud or small lateral branch, the cut should be made at approximately a 45* angle away from the bud or branch and ¼ inch above it. Heading cuts may result in a flush of vigorous, upright growth.
Strongest growth goes to the terminal bud. When cut, the lateral bud becomes the terminal bud and growth continues in that direction.
Open Center or Vase-Shaped can be used on all fruit and nut trees. Best for European plums, Asian pears and almonds. Makes big trees, shading from heavy top growth can be a problem.
In the first year select three to four limbs distributed evenly around trunk. Leave small branches on these limbs for early fruiting and sunburn protection. Head limbs half their length, should be 24-30".
At the second year select one or two limbs on each primary. Head these back to ½ their length (24-30"). Remove other limbs.
Central Leader makes a small tree, about half the size of a vase type. Excellent for distributing sunlight.
After first year select three to five lateral branches, lowest about 12-15" above ground, spaced evenly around tree, two to three feet apart vertically. Head leader and laterals that may compete with leader.
Following years develop another series of laterals every two to three feet higher up the central leader. It will likely be necessary to spread laterals physically when five to six feet long in order to form a proper angle (about 45°) with the trunk.
“Y” System starts at knee height as other systems. Makes a small tree. Easy to train. Good for peaches and nectarines. Space trees six to seven feet apart in rows 15 feet apart. The “Y” is perpendicular to the row. For apples plums, pears and cherries, increase distance between trees to eight to ten feet. Develop lateral branches from all side of each arm of the “Y.”
Ten Basics of When and How to Prune Fruit Trees
Prune fruit trees when the leaves are off (dormant). It’s easier to see what you are doing and removal of dormant buds (growing points) invigorates the remaining buds. Summer pruning removes leaves (food manufacture), will slow fruit ripening, and exposes fruit to sunburn. Summer pruning can be beneficial, however, when used to slow down overly vigorous trees or trees that are too large. It is usually done just after harvest.
Right after planting a new tree, cut if off to short stick 24 to 30 inches high and cut any side shoots, remaining below that, to one bud. This encourages low branching and equalizes the top and root system. Paint the tree with white latex paint to protect it from sunburn and borer attack.
Young trees should be pruned fairly heavily and encouraged to grow rapidly for the first 3 years without any fruit. Leave most of the small horizontal branches untouched for later fruiting.
When deciding which branch to cut and where to cut it, remember that topping a vertical branch encourages vegetative growth necessary for development of the tree and opens the tree to more sunlight. Topping horizontal branches is done to renew fruiting wood and to thin off excessive fruit. Horizontal branches left uncut will bear earlier and heavier crops.
Upright branches generally remain vegetative and vigorous. Horizontal branches generally are more fruitful. A good combination of the two is necessary, for fruiting now and in future years. Remove suckers, water sprouts and most competing branches growing straight up into the tree. Downward bending branches eventually lose vigor and produce only a few small fruit; cut off the part hanging down.
New growth occurs right where you make the cut; that is the influence of the cut only affects the buds within 1 to 8 inches of the cut surface not 3 to 4 feet down into the tree. The more buds cut off the more vigorous the new shoots will be.
Do most of the pruning in the top of the tree so that the lower branches are exposed to sunlight. Sun exposed wood remains fruitful and produces the largest fruit. Shaded branches eventually stop fruiting and will never produce without drastic topping and renewal of the entire tree.
Make clean cuts (within ¼") of bud; don’t leave stubs.
Use spreaders or tie downs to get 45° angles branches of upright vigorous growing trees.
Peach and Nectarine remove 50% of last years growth. Fig, Apple, Pear, Plum and Apricot remove about 20% of last years growth. Cherries only summer prune the first 5 years.
Pruning Abandoned or Neglected Fruit Trees
Whether today’s trees are remnants from yesterday’s orchards, or simply abandoned for other reasons, pruning may look like an impossible task. In some cases, these trees can be rejuvenated and made functional in the home orchard or landscape. In others, planting a new tree may be more practical.
Unpruned trees may be eye-sores at best. They often appear as a network of crowded, twisted and overlapping branches. There may be several large, tall primary branches arising at narrow angles, close to each other. Low side branches may be sparse, absent or “deer pruned” to head height.
Although the trunk and general framework may be sound, the functional portion of the tree is usually a solid canopy of weak, crowded branches at the top or periphery of the tree’s canopy. Trees may have annual shoot growth an inch or two at best, and irregular crops of small, wormy fruit.
A word of caution about the origin of trees. Some old trees have arisen from seed or as suckers from the rootstock or root system below the graft union. With few exceptions, these trees are typically inferior to named varieties and do not justify your efforts, especially if your reason is fruit production.
Planting a new tree or grafting (topworking) the existing tree with named varieties or cultivars are better options (for information, see Propagation of Temperate-Zone Fruit Plants, UC publication 21103).
Good tools for the job will not guarantee success, but poor ones invite poor work and accidents. Price is a general reflection of quality, and three tools are essential for pruning:
- Hand pruning shears
- Lopping shears (loppers) with 24- to 30-inch handles
- A folding or fixed handled pruning saw, with 8- to 15-inch curved blades and wide set teeth
Folding ladders and extension ladders are unsafe and not designed for unstable ground or tree work. An orchard (tripod) ladder is the only ladder considered acceptable and safe, even on hillsides and uneven ground. Properly cared for, an orchard ladder will last a lifetime and more.
Although pruning is one of the oldest horticultural practices, the principles on which it is based are not always understood. The novice tends to focus on minor details at the expense of some well-accepted principles.
Whether the task is to prune neglected, mature trees or simply annual pruning of trees under regular care and maintenance, the following principles will serve you well:
Have a specific purpose or plan in mind. In this case, the focus is to rejuvenate the tree into one that is structurally sound, functional, manageable and attractive in the home orchard or landscape.
Know the age and type of wood where fruit buds form. Your initial consideration with neglected trees, however, is tree structure, and more detailed pruning will come in later years.
Fruit bud formation is dependent on light. The tree must be open enough for light penetration, interior shoot growth and fruit bud development.
Dead, dying, diseased parts and interfering branches should be removed. Weak or very narrow crotches may also be removed.
The first step in rejuvenating a neglected tree is to prune it. Pruning of deciduous fruit and nut trees is normally done when the tree is dormant—essentially any time after the leaves are off and prior to spring bud break.
January is a good month to get started. The amount of pruning, of course, will depend on the condition of the tree. Keep in mind that it took several years for neglected trees to develop; it is often easier to take two or three years to rejuvenate them than to attempt it all in one year.
Too much pruning will produce a wilderness of waterspouts or excessive shoot growth and may increase the potential for sunburn near sun-exposed pruning cuts and interior areas. Stand back and look at the tree several times to visualize where to get started and the future structure desired. As you get started, keep the following in mind:
A few large pruning cuts accomplish more than many small cuts.
Over the next two or three years, direct pruning toward selecting well placed new branches as eventual replacements for the old higher ones. Control excessive shoot growth by thinning and heading those that are left. Leave the tree open enough for light penetration needed for fruit bud formation on the new interior shoots. Continue to head back and thin out the top of the tree, gradually eliminating the old top as newer branches take over.
When pruning, avoid leaving stubs or pruning cuts that are made flush with the point of branch attachment. Note the presence of branch collars. The branch collar appears as a swelling at the base of the branch where attached. Branch collars are rings of wood with living cells which protect the pruning cut and generate new tissue that covers the wound in time. Thinning cuts should be made at the edge of the branch, leaving the collar intact.
Once pruned, much wood and brush will have been removed from the tree. Heavy pruning tends to invigorate the tree and stimulate a lot of vegetative growth the following spring.
Avoid the use of nitrogen fertilizers at least for a year or two following this heavy pruning.
No research supports the use of wound sealing or tree sealant materials on pruning cuts; leave them exposed to air dry after pruning.