How to prune a fruit tree?

20, 2014

Pruning treesPruning a fruit tree from a young age is essential for its future. It facilitates an easier harvest in years to come, as well as providing a good structure, good balance and aesthetic appeal.





The biggest myth regarding the growth of trees

People believe that when trees grow, the branch will move up along the trunk. This is wrong!

If a small tree has a branch 30 cm from the soil, it will stay all its life 30 cm from the soil. This branch will grow in size, will become 15 cm in diameter and it will touch the soil; it will not be cute anymore! If you wanted your child to find shade and sit under the tree, well, it won’t happen!

The branches do not grow with the trunk

When do we have to prune?

The best time to prune is in early March, but waiting until April is also fine. The key point to remember is that the strong frost of February should have passed and that the flowers should not have opened.  All fruit trees and most other trees have to be pruned at that time. The exceptions are maples, walnuts and birch, which should be pruned in June.

How to prune?

Pruning your tree at a young age will define its long term structure. This pruning will determine the position of each of the main branches and will enable you to grow a well balanced tree.

Please note that this technique will only apply to standard sized trees, like all the apple and pear trees we sell. Do not prune a dwarf tree this way. You can also use this technique to prune most big trees. For ornamental trees, you could also decide to use this technique, but it would be good to leave more space between each branch and to start the first branch higher on the trunk.

  1. The first step is choosing the height of the first branch. To be a good pruner, imagine your tree when it will be old. Think about the future. Do you want to sit under the tree? Do you want to use the lawnmower close by? Do you want to attach a swing? To make a good decision, plan how much space you will need below your branches. In the north, we also have to consider the snow. The first branch must be higher than the maximum snow cover you receive. For example, if you have snow cover of one metre, your first branch should not be located below one metre, as the snow will probably break the branch and damage the trunk.
  1. Once the first branch is chosen, cut all the branches below that one.
  1. Next, choose the main branches you want to keep. For apple and pear trees, leave enough space between branches for the tree to be well balances arounf the trunk. We suggest allowing 30cm between branches.  Another useful tip is to alternate the direction of the branches, one towards South, one towards North, one towards East, one towards West, and so on. Red flags are a great help in identifying the branches to keep. This will enable you to have a clear idea of the final result and correct it if something is wrong.
  2. Once you have chosen all the branches to keep, cut all the others with a sharp pruning shear. Cut only the main branches starting from the trunk and don't worry about the rest.
    When you cut, be careful to cut just after the branch collar; this way, you help the tree to heal itself.
  3. Don’t cut the head of the tree!

A well pruned apple tree

I’m afraid to hurt my tree if I cut a branch!

If your pruning shears are blunt, you will tear the branch apart and its wound will take longer to heal. However, a small branch that is cut with sharp pruning shears is easy to repair for the tree and the pruning will help the tree to grow better. By delaying pruning, the branch will become bigger and will create a bigger wound when you cut it, which will take longer for the tree to heal.  A small wound from a 1cm diameter branch is very easy to heal, but if you wait until it is 3 cm, that's another story!

Buying a young tree

Most garden centres sell trees with too many low branches. It is done this way to satisfy the customers who want a 'tree', not a 'whip'! Now that you understand the principles of pruning, you know that when they sell you a “whip”, they are selling you a well pruned tree.  When they sell you a very cute tree with many branches, they are selling you what you want, not what the tree needs, (unless you want to grow a bonsai tree!)

This is a tree sold in a garden centre. All the branches are at the same height. While it might look cute now, after a few years, if not pruned, the branches will choke the trunk.

A fruit tree from garden center

Don’t forget, when pruning, be a visionary! Imagine where your tree will be in twenty years.  What will it look like? Will all the branches be stuck at the same height or be well balanced?