Fruit Trees 101: Pruning

Meredith Gaines — Jul 18, 2022

Say it with us - pruning is a good thing! Pruning can be scary - after all, here you are encouraging your trees and waiting patiently for them to grow, only to be told you now have to remove some parts. It might feel like you’re backtracking, losing all of the progress you’ve made and injuring your precious trees.

But, trust us, pruning is valuable and worthwhile - your fruit trees will thank you in return. And rest assured because we’re going to take the stress and mystery out of pruning and break it down so you can trim your plants with confidence! 

Take a look as @backyard_gardener_rach shows us how she prunes her fruit trees. Then, keep reading as we get into the nitty-gritty of pruning! 

What is Pruning?

Let’s start off by defining pruning. Pruning is quite simply the act of removing any part of the plant. This includes removing flowers, fruits, branches, and roots, but of course, this is done with the plant's health in mind, not at random.

The best way to understand how pruning affects the tree is to compare it to a haircut. You need

haircuts occasionally to look your best. It’s done both for the health of your hair as much as it is to get the look that you want. In the unfortunate case that you get a bad haircut, your hair will grow out with time. The same is true when it comes to pruning plants. There are two main reasons to prune - looks and health, and just like a haircut, your tree can grow even if the pruning wasn’t the best.

There are very visually stunning pruning techniques like topiary or purely functional styles designed to optimize fruit production. There’s also an in-between where you can balance both looks and health, which is the most popular with the majority of home gardeners. However, unlike a haircut, when a part of a plant is removed it redirects the internal energy. You can prune to inhibit growth just as much as you can to promote growth (more on this later).

Benefits of Pruning

The benefits of pruning are almost endless and universally help plants if done correctly. Check out a few key benefits below.

  1. Promotes the overall health of the tree
  2. Reduces energy load
  3. Increases air circulation
  4. Removes wounded areas
  5. Controls diseases
  6. Controls pests
  7. Increases light penetration
  8. Allows room for new and strong growth
  9. Protects structures and people nearby
  10. Maintains the look of the landscape and aesthetic appeal

By not pruning, you can expect your tree to grow, flower and fruit, but don’t expect it to look tidy or be as productive. As your tree grows, the branches may break under the weight of the fruit and potentially damage property nearby when it falls. Uncut growth at the bottom of the tree near the base might cause a weak harvest due to the tree directing energy away from the growing fruits.

Less pruning can also mean fewer flowers and less growth, which results in less fruit for you to enjoy, or too much where diseases and pests thrive. Trees left to grow on their own are irregularly shaped and may appear lopsided or sparse. So yes, if you’re wondering if you could get away with not pruning at all, you can, but it's not the best idea.

pruning fruit trees

Types of Pruning That Can be Done

As mentioned before, pruning isn't only removing stems. It’s removing any part of the plant including flowers, fruits, and in some cases, roots. There are also various reasons why you would prune off a certain part of the tree. To make things easier, we’ve listed different kinds of pruning below and why they’re helpful. 

Flower Pruning

Have you ever removed old flowers that are past their prime? If so, then congrats, you have flower pruning down! This process of removing flowers is also popularly called "dead-heading" or "flower-thinning". In the example of roses, you remove or dead-head old blooms to encourage new buds to open. Removing flowers simply redirects the energy of the plant. Instead of putting energy into making seeds or fruit from the flower, the tree now has more energy for the rest of the flowers to develop fully or create more blooms.

In the case of fruit trees, flower thinning is often used on trees where not all of the flowers will be full-sized fruits. For example, on a peach tree, only some of the flowers are removed so that you will have bigger fruits to harvest instead of a lot of tiny fruits that are smaller or underdeveloped. Removing all flowers can redirect energy to the roots of younger fruit trees trying to get established.

Fruit Pruning

Fruit pruning or fruit-thinning is removing fruits before they’re ready for harvest. This is done when fruits are underdeveloped and small. Removing fruits in order to get more fruits sounds very counterproductive, but there are reasons why this works!

Removing some of the immature fruit will...

  1. Protect your harvest, as the extra space provides room for fruits to mature and airflow to decrease fungal and bacterial issues ruining your crop.
  2. Increase the size of your fruit as there is more energy to go around with less fruit, resulting in a more developed, larger, and tastier fruit instead of more fruits that are smaller and underdeveloped.
  3. Reduce weight on the branches to prevent branch splitting and causing harm while losing your harvest.

Shoot or Stem Pruning

When you think of pruning this is likely the kind that comes to mind. It consists of removing unwanted branches or stems. The reasons range from removing dead and broken limbs to just pruning to promote airflow or for looks. By pruning branches off, you can dramatically shape the tree and stunt growth or do the opposite to stimulate growth. We will show you how to do both, so keep on reading!

Root Pruning

This is not very common but still good to know when it comes to pruning. Very rarely will you need to cut the roots of a tree and it’s not often recommended. However, if you’re trying to grow a bonsai tree, then you’ll be pruning the roots as much as the top of the tree. For standard fruit trees grown in a container, you may need to resize your roots if they begin to circle or outgrow the pot they’re in. And for in-ground fruit trees, no root maintenance should be needed.

Pruning Basics

Pruning Tools

The biggest mistake people make when pruning their trees is they just try to grab whatever tool without understanding the purpose. Doing that causes stress to the plant and your body, making it work harder than it needs to when the tool should be doing the majority of the work with you directing it.

Reference our pruning tool chart here:

pruning tools

Hand Pruners or Hand Shears, Secateurs, or Clippers

  1. Bypass, draw cut and scissor pruners are the most popular and are named because of the way one blade bypasses or goes over the other one, just like scissors do. The important thing to note is that only one blade is sharpened while the other is mainly dull. The sharpened side is the cutting side that should always face the part of the plant you’re keeping due to it making a cleaner cut.
  2. Snap or anvil pruners are the other kinds you’ll find, and these will look similar, but the blades will come down in line on top of one another not sliding past. The top blade is sharpened and comes directly down on the unsharpened one. Anvil pruners are best for snapping off dead branches or thin growth since they tend to crush the stem.
  3. With pruners, you can get fancy grips, pointed tips, rounded tips, springs, and colors to fit your taste and style, but only use these for small cuts that are the width of your thumb or less. If you can't fit the entire branch in the mouth of the pruners, use a different tool.

Loppers or Lopping Shears

This is another common garden tool you might be familiar with. Loppers look like bypass pruners if you were to extend the handle out. The blade is slightly bigger overall, but the extra-long handles make cutting through tough branches easier because you have the extra leverage. Plus, they provide more reach for getting higher branches. 

Saws

Saws come in different sizes and shapes and should be reserved for the larger branches that loppers and hand pruners can't tackle. There are various shapes, sizes, and even electric ones that can fit your needs. A personal favorite is a pocket saw for its lightweight, storage-friendly design and a pole saw which allows for cutting high-up branches from the ground.

Save yourself the strain and just start with quality tools from the start to ensure you’re safe and effective with your pruning.

How to Prune

pruning fruit tree

Have a Vision

Just like a hairdresser knows what the final look will be, you want to take a moment to figure out what look you’re going for with your tree instead of just hoping for the best. Popular fruit pruning styles are further down for inspiration if you need some help.

Know Your Plant

Some fruit trees will bounce back quicker than others, so before you remove the majority of the tree, make sure you know if you’re cutting off potential fruits or if you’ll experience massive growth. Look up your fruit tree on an extension website to find this information.

Pick the Right Time

Pruning done at the wrong time of year will be harmful to your tree. Avoid this by knowing the proper pruning time. To help, here’s a chart with popular pruning times based on variety:

when to prune

Choose the Right Tools

As covered in the section above, the right tools make or break a pruning job, so invest and take care of your tools, choosing the right ones for your needs.

Make the Cuts

Make sure to step back and evaluate your work as you make cuts. Look at your tree from different angles to prevent one side from being flat or bare and take your time! The types of pruning cuts and what to cut off are explained below.

Keep Safety in Mind

Keep yourself on stable footing, don’t leave tools laying on the ground as possible hazards, wear gloves, and make sure you’re not injuring your back with improper posture.

Don’t Go Too Far

This is easier said than done, but make sure you don’t remove more than one-third of the tree at one time. If you accidentally cut off more than you expect or make a mistake, don’t stress too much, as it will grow back with time!

What to Cut

This is the anticipated part where we go through what you need to remove, so pay attention and take notes! This will apply to both young and older trees; however, younger trees might not need as much pruning as older ones due to their age and lack of branching. When pruning, it’s best to start by trimming for the health of the tree first, then the shape and look of the tree second.

When pruning for the health of the tree, remove any of the following you notice (see graphic below for reference):

  1. Competing leaders (remove the weaker ones)
  2. Malformed branches
  3. Branches that are growing from the same spot or on the same plane next to one another
  4. Branches that have a narrow attachment
  5. Weak growth in the canopy (these are also known as "water sprouts" and will not bear fruit)
  6. Weak growth coming from the base of the tree (also known as suckers)
  7. Crossing branches that will grow into one another or rub (remove the weaker or smaller of the two)
  8. Broken or diseased branches
  9. Branches growing towards the center of the tree
  10. Crowded branches

what to prune

Pruning Cuts

Simple cuts with loppers or pruners should be made with the cutting blade facing the main plant and in one motion. It’s a good idea to keep the blades clean and sharp and sanitize with some rubbing alcohol between plants. Re-leadering cuts direct growth, heading cuts stimulate new growth, and thinning cuts reduce bulk and prohibit growth.

View the graphic here to understand these pruning cuts:

pruning cuts

Three-step cuts are needed for larger branches that require a saw. These cuts are performed in three steps to avoid injury to the rest of the tree. See example here:

pruning cuts
  1. First, score the underside of the branch just past the bark. This will prevent the bark from tearing into the part of the tree you’re keeping.
  2. Next, past your first cut and cut the bulk of the branch off. This removes extra weight and again prevents splitting or harm to the main part of the tree.
  3. Last, make your final cut to remove the branch and make it tidy. Don’t cut into the tree - cut parallel to the trunk, avoiding the branch collar (shown below).

3-step cut

Popular Fruit Tree Pruning Styles

Espalier

Espalier (pronounced "es-pal-lee-aye") is a French term that means to trellis or support a fruit tree against a structure and is popularly done on apples and pears. Training your fruit trees in this way not only looks impressive, but it's quite smart, as well. Growing your fruit trees flat reduces the amount of space and promotes the amount of fruit you get, making it quite clever if you need to save space. This is done by careful pruning and training the branches to grow mainly horizontal branches along a guide wire.

espalier pruning cut

Open Center

Open center pruning is commonly used in stone fruits like cherries, apricots, peaches, and plums. Think of a martini glass where you have an open center with a flared edge; now put it in tree form. Cutting the center low and having branches spread out on the perimeter does a few things for the fruit tree. First, it keeps fruit at an accessible height for easy harvesting. Secondly, the open center promotes airflow and lets in light to decrease the risks of fungal or bacterial issues, and lastly, the flared branches allow space for branches and fruits so they’re not crowded. It’s a win for your fruit tree and you without sacrificing looks or time on meticulous upkeep. 

open center pruning

Central Leader Pruning

Central leader pruning can be applied to any fruit tree, but it’s most popular for apples and pears where you prune the central leader to encourage horizontal growth that radiates from the tree evenly. This method creates more branching for a smaller size and therefore more fruit for you with a traditional tree shape. 

central leader pruning 

Take the stress off of pruning and remember that it’s just a plant haircut. We’ve all had a bad haircut occasionally, but the hair grows back, and the same is true for plants. Take the hesitation out of picking up the pruners and go in with confidence knowing your plant needs some trimming from time to time to look and act its best. Pruning will take practice and some getting used to, especially if you haven't done it before, but follow our tips above and start out small if needed. 

To keep learning, check out the rest of our Fruit Trees 101 Course, filled with all the sweet tips you need to create your backyard orchard!

    Meredith Gaines

    Meredith's love for plants started at a young age, and only grew when she started working in the Desert Exhibit at the South Carolina Botanical Gardens and the Historic Filoli Estate in the Bay Area. After graduating from Clemson University (GO TIGERS!) with a degree in Biology and Horticulture, she found her niche in the FastGrowingTrees.com family as a horticulturist and has grown in her current role as Senior Plant Expert.

    She currently resides in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoys spending any time she can outdoors. She learns new things about plants every day and loves sharing her plant knowledge and tips with those around her. Her favorite plant is constantly changing, but her long-time favorites are peonies, oak trees, and ferns.

    Questions? Contact Meredith at information@fastgrowingtrees.com.

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