We plant fruit tree saplings with expectations of big, sweet, juicy fruit; and plenty of it. Fruit tree dreams are the biggest dreams, because gardeners may cultivate these living treasures for 3 to 5 years before having their first taste of fruit! That is a good, long time to wait. But unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we can rig the odds of finding sweet, luscious fruit every year with no disappointments. When a fruit tree is properly pruned in a timely manner, yields are more consistent and the fruit is of better quality. A neglected tree has a tendency to put on a bumper crop of poor size one year and be unfruitful or yield very little fruit the next. This boom and bust cycle is stressful to the tree and causes many otherwise healthy limbs to crack right off. Pruning is the only way to avoid this troubling scenario.
When you plant an apple, pear, cherry, peach, plum, or apricot, you are connecting with the grand legacy of your ancestors. They spent centuries seeing, tasting, collecting, transporting, rooting, grafting, sharing, and caring for these magical plants. So, in order to take advantage of that legacy of hard work and wisdom, start with a reliable, named cultivar which has been grafted onto dwarf or semi-dwarf root stock, that is well suited to your area.
As soon as you first plant your sapling, your pruners should come out. After paying a lot of money for a stick with a few roots hanging off of it, many gardeners are leery about chopping away more than half of the delicate young whip. But, in order to cultivate a strong trunk and sturdy branching, prune now. You will enjoy balanced, resilient structure for the life of the tree.
Your first cut will be right after bare root planting and will establish the height of the first branches. Make the cut at an angle, just above a good strong bud. At this time, the focus of pruning is height. A skillfully pruned fruit tree can be picked and maintained without using a ladder. So, knee high or about 18 inches above the ground is the general rule. If you have children and adults of small stature who will pick the fruit or care for the trees, they will appre ciate the convenience of rarely needing a ladder. Even in many commercial orchards, tall trees are being replaced with shorter tre es. When the main limbs are started low, it will be easier to keep the mature height low as well.
The second year is vitally important, because you are selecting the “scaffold” of the tree. Choose strong limbs, growing from the trunk at a 45 to 90 degree angle and well spaced around the tree. The stone fruit trees should be cleared out in the center, into an open bowl shape. On the apple and pear trees, a strong central leader with well-spaced branches is ideal. Remember that this young growth will develop a large circumference in future years, and good spacing of the limbs will allow air and light into all areas of the tree. This is also the time when young limbs may need to be cut back to about 12 to 18 inches, to stimulate the buds that will become the first branches. All the species and their various cultivars grow at different rates of speed, so do not be concerned if you don’t have much length on the new limbs.
When removing wood, from the trunk or from a limb, look for the “collar” where the branch is attached. Even the smallest branches have a visible collar, which looks like multiple wrinkles lined up together on the bark. Make your cut just above the collar but not too far up the branch. Be sure to cut clear of the collar, but the tree will have to heal over the cut portion of the branch, so don’t leave a large stump sticking out. DO NOT paint your cuts. Properly executed cuts are easily healed naturally by the tree.
The third year is an exciting time, because you may be seeing special buds, called “fruiting spurs”, for the first time. Observe the difference between “vegetative buds” and fruiting spurs. Vegetative buds are arrow shaped and are tight against the wood in winter. Fruiting spurs stand out from the wood like a hitch hiker’s thumb and have a fuzzy appearance. It is best to prune without regard for fruit production at this time and continue to focus on the scaffold of the young tree. In the case of a peach tree, you might be surprised with some fruit in the third year, but peaches fruit on new wood, so prune for scaffold anyway and see what happens. Steer all future growth outward. Make each cut at an angle, about ¼ inch above an outward pointing bud. Keep the long side of the angle aligned with the bud. Remove all inward facing growth, crossed growth and damaged or diseased growth. There is a strong difference among the species in how much pruning is required. A peach tree is very fast growing and short lived, so about 60 percent of the tree will be removed in an average year! While a dwarf, sour (pie) cherry tree will need 20 per cent or less removed in an average year.
In the fourth year and beyond, your young trees are becoming a real orchard. Now is the time to prune for fruit production. Notice the differences among the 3 twigs in the photograph. The top twig has only vegetative buds. The middle twig shows both types of buds. The bottom twig has only fruiting spurs. As you examine last season’s growth, pay special attention to fruiting spurs (Remember that peaches are an exception). Avoid removing the spurs, unless they are on a branch that is crossed or should be removed for some other reason. In some cases the spur can be retained while most of the unwanted branch is removed. It is fine to err on the side of caution because a final decision about whether to keep or remove a branch with fruiting spurs can be made after fruit set. Right now, the more spurs, the better. Remove all crossed or damaged branches and inward growing branches. The goal is to make ample space for air and sunlight to penetrate the tree.
Pruning fruit trees is both art and science. It is good to watch an experienced orchardist do their winter pruning, if you have the opportunity. After reviewing many videos, I found the videos listed below to be very useful and accurate. The videos were made in California, but the pruning technique is universal.
- Video 1 – Young trees pruned; Summer pruning discussed to maintain size during a long growing season
- Video 2 – Renovation pruning of a peach tree; good technique
- Video 3 – Maintenance pruning of an older cherry tree; good views of damaged wood
- Video 4 – Older apricot tree; excellent advice on balanced fruiting
- Video 5 – Mature apple tree; great tips and details; double cutting to avoid damage
- Video 6 – Shows a well pruned pear and renovation of a neglected tree
Before you start you should always sharpen and sterilize your pruners. Hand pruners are sufficient for the first two or three years, but after that loppers and a small pruning saw are necessary. These tools will last long and serve you well if you keep them clean, sharp, dry, and well-oiled. Toxic chemicals are not necessary to sterilize your equipment. Choose vinegar or alcohol for disinfection. Both of these are just as effective as chlorine and can be produced at home. In recent studies, vinegar has exceeded the kill rate of chlorine.
The best advice for any beginning orchardist is to TAKE YOUR TIME! Observe your trees closely at all times of year. Their subtle details will gradually become apparent over time and with attention. Soon their secrets will become known to you, and a long relationship with your flowering, fruiting friends will begin.