Saturday, March 24, 2012

Pruning Fruit Trees (a humble tutorial)

Last year we shared a short post about pruning our peach trees.  Apple Pie Gal was curious for more information, and we promised to do a more thorough post on pruning fruit trees when the time came. We haven't heard from APG for a little while, but we're hoping she still stops by now and then to see what's going on around here. This is for you APG. We know how hard you work, and we miss you.

When we moved here we inherited 6 peach trees with the property and had no idea how to care for them. It's been 5 years now, and we finally feel like we're getting a handle on managing them properly.  We've also added 2 Morris plums to the yard. They're 3 years old now.  This post is a play-by-play pruning tutorial of one of our plums.

Disclaimer: We would not normally prune fruit trees during their blossom, but we had to do it this year. The warming trend just hasn't slowed down, and we weren't quick enough with the pruning sheers. I stand by the idea that it's good to prune in early spring (or summer after fruiting) when the trees are wide awake, energized and strong. Pruning in fall and winter leaves open wounds unhealed and susceptible to disease. For this year, we were a little too late and our blossoms will have to suffer some hardship as a consequence.

I find that when pruning fruit trees every cut boils down to choosing between two or three limbs. Here are my humble recommendations for helping choose what limbs to cut or not to cut.

  • Don't be afraid to cut! Your tree is its own worst enemy. It needs your help, and that requires pruning. I've had to use a saw to remove unhelpful limbs on our older peach trees. Such limbs should have been pruned years before I ever got to them. But also remember that stone fruit grows on new growth branches, so don't go crazy. I can hear Belle in the background crying out for the tree as I prune, "Stop, stop! Please don't hurt me!"
  • Prune your tree to look like an upside down umbrella.  Keep the center clear. This fosters light for growth and air flow to fight bugs and disease.
  • Prune your tree for a strong center of gravity. When the tree is young select 4 or 5 main branches as the center of all growth.
5 limbs w/an empty center. See how the tree tries so hard to grow straight up the middle. I just keep cutting the center shoots out.
  • When choosing between branches, cut the one furthest from the center of the tree. If you don't get what I mean, just try holding a book up for a minute or so with an outstretched arm. It's much easier to hold the book close to your body. The same is true for trees, only instead of books they hold fruit. The idea is to keep the growing branches close to the trunk. 
  • Limbs are like people.They need their space. Prune branches to create space among the limbs. For me, this means when selecting limbs I prune branches touching each other and I prune branches that are less than 4 inches from another.
  • A tree properly pruned is like an flowing ocean wave. Everything is moving (growing) in the same direction. Prune the branches that are growing against the flow of growth.
Before. You can see what's growing against the flow of growth.  Notice the wound from one branch rubbing the other.

After. The remaining branches are growing  the same direction, and the entire space is much thinner for light and air.

Before, dense.

After, breezy.
  • I recommend pruning your tree so that you don't need ladders and you don't need to climb it to harvest the fruit. We've already got enough work to do around here. Dragging out ladders to get to our harvest is just plain inefficient!
  • Another incidental efficiency measure is to prune from the bottom toward the top. Doing this will ensure that you don't needlessly prune the same branches twice.
Before and After

The Tree before.

After pruning the largest branches from the bottom and upward.
The finished tree, topped to about 8 feet high.

 The post wouldn't be complete without a pick of Belle's amazing home decor! Don't tell her I said so, but she is amazing. She refurbished a Craigslist piece of furniture to become that beautiful china hutch pictured below, and she painted and stenciled the wall in the background.  I guess gardeners have to find something to do in the winter! I love our new kitchen. The blooms make it perfect. Thanks Belle, and happy Birthday!


  1. Oh, those spring blossoms are so beautiful! Thanks for the tutorial - would it apply to peach, plum and apple tress?

    1. Aren't they pretty! This tutorial applies to stone fruit trees like peaches, plums and nectarines, but not to apple trees. They need to be pruned differently, though I don't know how.

  2. Great tutorial Jody! Belle is one talented lady. The dining area looks beautiful!

    1. Thanks Robin, she has really done an excellent job. It's quite a change from the time you were here with us.

  3. I still haven't gotten to pruning my peach trees. I just put them in last year. I've never had fruit trees before and now I have two peaches, two apples, two figs, and a plum. It is going to be a real learning experience.

    I do have a questions. One had a couple of large branches way down on the trunk. One lower than a foot and one lower than 18". I'm guessing I don't want any branches below about three feet at the end and I should just chop them off now. What do you think? There are only three main branches right now. Those two and the one more in the middle. Should I cut both this year (two thirds of the growth). Or should I just do one this year and one the next year. The other peach tree is easier it obviously had one main trunk. So I can work more easily with it in its youth.

    1. Great question Daphne. Thanks for asking. If you look closely at our tree before picture and compare it with our tree after picture you'll see one large, low branch on the right side was removed. It was about 1 inch in diameter. I cut 2 branches like that this year. I've been watching the one on the left side for 3 years now. The other one was a surprise. I'm glad I waited. It gave me time to watch the tree and make certain what to do. But the drawback, of course, is the large wounds now left behind. I think the tree can handle it.

      If I were you I'd be asking myself, can I see how those low branches might, in the long run, become a good and permanent support system for the rest of the tree? If not, I'd cut them off. But another equally important question to ask before cutting is, is there a replacement base of branches emerging somewhere else? As you know, once you've cut, it's done! Having a low growing base of branches is better than having no base at all. I also recommend doing nothing until late summer. That gives the tree a whole season to become stronger and the tree may look completely different to you then.

      If the young tree is healthy, I don't think cutting both branches at the same time will hurt the tree. But sometimes we need to go easy for our own peace of mind! Thanks again for asking. I hope this is helpful.

  4. Great tutorial. I love how you presented the info - very clear and sensible. Our Japanese Maple trees have gorgeous shape and form and it is because whoever cared for them when they were young, really understood how to property prune a tree. It does really make a difference.

    Your before and after pic really shows the improvement.

  5. Thank you kitsapFG. I'd love to see a picture of your maple. I'm gaining greater appreciation for well cared for trees all the time.

  6. Happy Birthday Belle. She really have talent. I don't think I will entrust the pruning part to my husband. But I can't do any pruning until I am not carrying a baby.

  7. You rock! Happy Birthday (belated) Belle!

    Thank you for posting this! Are you for hire too???

  8. The biggest branches are pretty large! Happy Belated Birthday Belle!

    -EverGreen Tree & Shrub Inc.
    Tree Removal Brooklyn