Pruning Fruit Trees

Pruning fruit trees now, before the leaves have come in and the pests are out, holds certain advantages over waiting until later in the season.

Master Gardener Scoop – April 4, 2018

Will Summers,
Master Gardener

If your fruit trees have not blossomed yet, you still have time to give them a good pruning in the coming week or two. Our average last day of frost is about April 16th, which ends the average expected killing frost period for our area. Fruit trees may be pruned at any time of year, but be concerned that pruning during the growing season opens fruit trees to a multitude of pests and diseases. Prune now when leaves are not present to view the unobstructed shape of the tree. Be prepared to remove as much as a third of the branches, especially if that tree hasn’t been pruned in a few years.

Begin your pruning by selecting appropriate tools for the job. This includes ladders, bi-pass pruners, loppers and saws, as necessary. Match the tool to the size of cut to be made.

Next, look for, and remove, all dead wood. You can tell if a branch is alive by scraping the bark down to the wood. If stems are flexible and you encounter green tissue, the stem is alive. If the inner bark is not green and the stem is brittle, stiff and dry, it is dead and must be removed down to its contact with live material.

Next remove branches that come in contact with other branches or are rubbing together. Then remove all “watersprouts” and “suckers”. Watersprouts are vertical stems originating from horizontal limbs and suckers originate from around the base or trunk of the tree. Waterspouts and suckers do not produce much fruit and account for unnecessary loss of tree vigor.

Now, step back from your tree and assess the overall shape and structure. Here, consider whether your tree is a dwarf, a semi-dwarf, or a standard (full-sized) fruit tree which determines the tree’s ultimate size. This aspect will tell you whether you will train your tree as a small, medium or large fruit tree. The intention of your assessment is to limit the overall height of the tree. Allowing open branching where fruit is grown facilitates picking and overall tree health. If left unpruned, the tree produces large fruit at the top where it gets plenty of sunlight and only small, misshapen fruit on lower branches.

Apples and pears may be grown on a central leader growing from the center of the tree from 3 feet for dwarf, or 6 to 10 feet high for standard trees. Conversely, prune peaches, nectarines, cherries and apricots with an open-center system to fruit from a few horizontal branches located lower to the ground.

Fruit tree pruning produces “scaffolding”, which has three to five branches arising from a single level, spaced at various locations along the central leader, of limited height. Angle scaffolds to go off at the widest angle apart. Scaffolds should begin one or two feet above ground level depending on the amount of dwarfing of your tree.

Once your scaffolds are established, reduce the number of branches arising from a common scaffold to only 3 or 4. Second level scaffolds should locate about two feet above the first.

Finally, shorten the branches or reduce number of side branching by “heading back”, or trimming the longest branches, back to the next side branch.

Consider brushing or dipping all pruning tools into a dilute alcohol solution before pruning another fruit tree. Good sanitation practices prevent spreading viral diseases between plants.

Ultimately, a successful pruning produces fewer, but larger fruit. Do not fertilize the year you prune since this will accelerate unnecessary additional limb growth.

Lastly, tree pruning is a good, outdoor, family event for children of all ages to participate. “Many hands make work light” is a familiar saying by our ancestors. Tree pruning is not only good for your trees, but also good for you.

There is much more to learn about correct fruit tree pruning that cannot be contained here. Make an opportunity to learn more about correct fruit tree pruning.

For more gardening information, please contact your local University of Illinois Master Gardener or your local Extension Service office.