Garden Q+A: How Do I Prune Fruit Trees?
Happy Monday! Last week I attended a class on an introduction to fruit tree pruning and training. Pruning fruit trees is something that I do not have a wide base of knowledge on, but taking that class really helped me feel more confident about what I was about to do... prune 10 apple trees, a cherry tree, a pear tree, and two peach trees. Keep in mind that I don't believe they had been pruned in several years... at least I counted several years on branches that needed to come down on. I posted the pruning process on our Instagram and had several of you asking for advice on how to trim up your fruit bearing trees! Well, like I said, I am definitely not an expert, but I do have some great information that can hopefully keep you from over pruning or damaging your trees.
In autumn of 2016 we planted three young apple trees, and those were the first fruit trees I had dealt with. When we moved to the farm in December, the property already had the handful of mature fruit trees that I listed above. That seemed a little daunting! I am happy to say that I think I did a decent job; I definitely got better at it as I went! Climbing up into a 20 foot cherry tree was not exactly what I would call my cup of tea. It was terrifying! Especially considering this time of year is extremely windy here in eastern Iowa (or all year long, let's be honest!). Let's get to down to: how do I prune fruit trees?
Tools + Equipment
Before you begin pruning, it's important to have the proper tools. As I raced out to begin sawing off branches and got most of my first tree finished, my dad arrived home and said, "You know you're cutting with a trim saw, right?" To which of course I asked, "What's a trim saw...?" WELL. I never said that I was great with tools! We took a trip to the tractor supply store after that and bought a tree saw. So use a tree saw! A few other things you might need are:
Hand tools offer the best possible way to pruner as they are easy to control, cheaper, and more precise. Don't got out and get yourself a chain saw because you think it will go faster! You could potentially damage the tree when working on smaller, more delicate branches. Make sure the cutting edges are sharp. If you do not know how to do this yourself, your local hardware store should be able to do this for you for a small fee. It's important to have a few orchard ladders or perhaps a step ladder if you are working on a smaller sized tree.
You'll also want a pair of work gloves, I like the kind that are fabric on top and rubber on the palms and fingers for a better grip but ease of movement. This pair seems decent, though not very pretty! Wear long sleeves and pants and a good pair of work boots to give you support and grip into the ladder and larger branches you may step on. If you have long hair, it's smart to wear it back, close to the neck, because it will get pulled a lot! If you have a stocking cap that will make everything easier. You may also want to think of wearing safety glasses as there will be a lot of little tree parts and wood flying at you as you saw!
Season for Pruning
Now is the time to start pruning. Here in Iowa and most other parts of the country, you'll want to get a majority of your pruning done during the dormant season. That's between mid-February and mid-April. While most fruit trees are dormant during the winter, it's smart to wait until early spring as you will more easily be able to identify flowers buds over leaf buds and so forth. This makes deciding where to cut much easier and more precise. If you have a larger orchard, however, this of course will half to happen earlier in the season as those short weeks before leaves begin to grow goes by quickly.
Pruning dormant trees is a smart decision to make as undesirable branches are more easily spotted. They do not as easily debark or have wounds from pruning during this time if you have to step on branches or the trunk and if your pruners are not as sharp as they could be. The wood won't pull away so easily, which can cause stress on the tree and allow disease to enter.
Can you prune in the summer/winter? You can... it's just more tricky. If you were to prune in the winter, you could possibly allow in cold damage to the tree. For instance, if there's a large flesh wound open on a branch, and you get a hard freeze, you may lose that entire branch or the fruiting buds on it. It's much more dangerous to prune a fruit tree in November than it is in February or March.
Most often, summer pruning is not recommended. It can actually cause the tree to regress rather than to keep growing outward, larger, when you would prune in the spring. If you do want to prune in the summer, which can be good for some instances, you'll want to make sure you follow some basic guidelines. It's best to prune in late July or August. This is a good time to remove watersprouts, if they are more than 6 inches long. This can help reduce the amount of branches you'll have to prune the following spring. The biggest issue with summer pruning is that if you do it too early, you could leave your fruit trees susceptible to fire blight. Don't do that!
Speaking of disease, disinfect your tools between trees. This is really important and helps to prevent any fungal spreading! Just simply dunk your tools in a bleach, vinegar, or alcohol solution with water for about a minute.
Okay! Now you have figured out which tools and equipment that you need as well as making sure that you are in the right season to prune. If you are reading this post at the time that it I wrote it, then go get out there right now! Now is the time before spring growth happens. Another good question to ask is, why should I prune fruit trees and how often? Essentially, you should prune your fruit trees (apple, pear, peach, cherry, persimmon, plums, apricots, etc) every single year. They need the rejuvenation and opening up for sun exposure. It helps to produce good annual yields of higher quality fruit - pruning is not be used as a way to thin fruit, even though it will. You are essentially making the trees job easier, to allow in more light to branches, that can produce fruit that is of higher quality and not high quantity. Pruning means that you will lose crop, and that's okay.
Step 1: Begin by looking for any wood that is dead, damaged, or diseased. Trim these off and discard.
Step 2: If there are any sprouts coming out from the base of the trunk or from the ground, remove them by trimming all the way to the ground. These are called suckers and are growing from the rootstock.
Step 3: Notice any super tall, straight branches growing from the main branches? These are called watersprouts and need to go!
When it comes to trimming these branches, you'll want to trim them close to the branch collar. A lot of web sources will tell you to trim branches flush... I recommend not doing this. This is simply an old custom that was believed for many years, though we know a bit better now. By making a cut to the branch collar, as you can see in the diagram below, you are working with the tree in a more natural way (this is the way they naturally drop branches) and creating a more quick healing process overall. Pruning is technically wounding the tree, so it makes sense to make the smallest cut possible and create the least amount of injury. A pruning wound that creates a ring around the cut is a sign that the tree was pruned properly.
Now that you have removed any weird branches, you'll want to open up the tree to allow some light in. This is essential in producing high quality fruit that is of decent size, flavor, and color. Thinking ahead, it's a good idea to know where these fruit are usually located. A tree that has extremely vertical branches or fruiting buds located underneath the branch will result in weird fruit. Fruit that grows on a vertical branch will be really large but flavorless, while a fruit that grows on an underside branch will be colorless and small. You want those side hanging fruits!
Step 4: Remove any branches that are young and growing low on the trunk, downward or inwards towards other branches. These will go no where fast if they grow any larger! You'll also want to take off any branches that cross path. You can choose which branch will be the better contender, but I usually take off the more vigorous growing branch or one that is growing straight up into the air on top of a branch (if it can be trained to grow out, I usually take it off!).
Step 5: Look for any branches that are parallel limbs. For a visual guide, check the photos above. One of these is going to have to go! In the photo, it would be the top one as it is smashed between two other branches.
Step 6: Take a step back from the tree and take a look at where it seems crowded. Don't forget - you don't have to trim off everything that you don't want. You could train the branches to have an improved crotch or to grow in a different direction. Try to determine which could be helped along. If training doesn't apply, ask yourself these questions: do any branches compete with each other? what is the training system already applied (central leader, modified central leader, open vase)? Are multiple branches growing from a single crotch at narrow angles? If yes to any of these, trim off all but one branch, the one with the best crotch angle. My class instructor always recommended leaving the one with the least vigor, but you might think differently!
Step 7: If you need a better idea of which branches to take out to create better light, then give each branch you want to keep about half a foot to one foot of air space around it. You don't want anything growing too close that could potentially cross/collide. A perfect tree has scaffold branches that grow on all four sides, though this rarely happens.
This is the easiest step once you are finished taking out branches! You want to give the branches, where the one-year-old growth is, a bit of a trim. You are cutting back the heads of these branches so that they continue to grow in thick and short rather than long and spindly. It causes the tree's hormones to activate on those thick lower branches rather than the thin straight growing ones.
Step 8: Start by identifying what is one-year-old growth from two-year-old growth. You can determine this by the rings of bark encircling each stem; take the end of a branch (which usually has fresh looking, red-ish wood) and following down until a lump or ring is spotted. This is where the one-year-old growth ends. You'll want to trim back about 20% of this growth with a nice, sharp cut.
Step 9: Before making the cut, figure out where the best bud is. Choose a bud that is facing the direction that you want the branch to continue to grow. Trim right before it, and you are done!
Trust me - getting started is really difficult! A few things to remember is that you if you have a young tree (under five-years-old) then you really only need to do minimal pruning. Let those branches get established before snipping them all off. If you have mature trees like I do, then they'll need at least a bit of a cut this year. Try to only take off one third of a mature tree each year and not any more. You do not want to over prune, which will result in quite flavorless fruit. On the other hand, not trimming at all will give you lots and lots of small, bitter fruits!
Good luck! If there are any other questions about fruit tree pruning that you think I missed, let me know in the comments or send me a message (: