CO-Horts Blog

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Basics of Fruit Tree Pruning

By Amy Lentz – Weld County CSU Extension

The season for pruning fruit trees has been in full swing lately. My colleagues and I have been busy teaching classes, talking with the public and helping growers “get their fruit tree pruning on”. It can be an intimidating task for some - "What if I prune out too much?" or "What types of cuts should I make?" With a little extra patience, basic research and confidence, you can do it...I promise.

Weld CMG's helping teach residents of a community.
Larimer CMG's learning to prune.

Here are some questions and answers that might help you get started (or finished) with your pruning needs.

1. Are fruit trees different than shade trees?

Yes! Fruit trees are pruned differently than shade trees. With fruit trees, you are growing a crop, maybe even for monetary gain. Therefore, you will be manipulating the tree’s growth more than you would when pruning shade trees. The three D’s (disease, damage and dead wood) still apply, but you will also be making cuts for other reasons, such as to increase fruit production or to fill an empty space with more branches. When trying to decide what to prune and what to not prune, look for strong branches with wide branch angles, which are more capable of holding a heavy load. You want to keep those! It's better to remove branches that have a very narrow, or weak, branch angle. Also, you would not be pruning your shade trees as often or as heavily as you would fruit tree! 

2. How should I prune a young tree vs. an older tree?

Young  fruit trees are much more forgiving than older fruit trees, so go lightly if you are pruning an older tree that needs a good deal of thinning. Spread out your pruning cuts to open up the canopy by pruning it lightly over several years. You can prune your young trees (say up to 5 years old or so) a little harder - and they are easier to train when they are young. So start with young trees if possible. Here is an example of how to train a tree over 5 growing seasons from a one year old whip (spreaders were added after the 4th spring):

3.  How do I know where the fruit will be?

Most fruit trees often bloom on old wood. Apples and pears, for example, grow on spurs which can begin developing after 2 years and last a long time, up to 20 years. Plums and cherries also have fruiting buds that occur on old wood, at least 2 years old, either on spurs or along the stems. Peaches, on the other hand, are developing fruit buds on last years growth, so annual pruning to encourage new growth is important for peaches. It's important to know the difference between fruiting buds and vegetative buds. You will be removing some fruiting wood during the regular pruning process, but you don’t want to inadvertently prune off all those little spurs, which will lead to fruit during the upcoming season.

Photos from University of Maine Cooperative Extension:
4.. When is the best time to prune my fruit trees?

With the warmth of spring happening more often lately, it’s time to get outside and finish up those pruning jobs if you haven’t already. The best time to prune is in late winter or early spring when the trees are still dormant (which is hard to judge in Colorado!). Either way, you want to stop pruning when the buds first begin to swell and break. It’s best to prune older trees first to make sure they have enough time to heal before spring and leave the younger trees until later in the pruning season. 

Another reason we prune when the trees are dormant is to reduce the spread of diseases like fire blight, that affects those fruit trees in the Rose Family, such as apples and pears. This particular disease can easily be identified and pruned out in the winter. 

For more information on Fireblight, see the following fact sheet from CSU:
Another good source of information on fireblight, more for the commercial orchard, can be found here from Washington State University:

5. What are my goals and objectives when pruning fruit trees? 

Approx. 5 year old cherry trees after pruning to thin the canopy.
Your main goal when pruning fruit trees is to open up the canopy of the tree to allow increased light penetration and increased air movement in the center of the canopy, where fruit spurs are located. 

You want to encourage outward growth on the tree to get branches to grow into open space. This is done by pruning to an outward facing branch or bud. Along with the three D’s (diseased, dead or damaged), look for crossing branches, branches that are shading or crowding one another and branches pointing back toward the tree. Don’t remove more than 25% a single pruning season, less for older trees so you don’t stress the tree too much. This will help with fruit development, as well as, decreasing the prevalence of insects and disease. 

To do this, remove crowded branches by making reduction or thinning cuts back to branches that are facing outward, away from the trunk. Reserve heading cuts (where you cut back to a small bud) for only those branches where you want to encourage new growth, such as lower branches or young branches. As you remove some of the twigs and branches to allow for more space in the tree, you will also, in effect, be reducing the number of fruit buds on the tree as you remove wood, so you will also be increasing the energy allotted to the fruit buds that remain – creating larger fruits that have ample sun and lots of space around them. This is the goal of growing fruit trees!

Finally...How can I build my confidence to prune my fruit tree?

Pruning fruit trees takes time, patience and a little critical thinking. A hands-on approach helps a great deal to make these concepts sink in. Definitely look beyond this blog because there is a lot more information than what I could provide here. When doing your research, be sure to look toward education- or research-based information and watch videos to help you make sound decisions when pruning. You can always remove a branch…but you can’t put it back on! Take your time, think about the branches you want to remove and what you want to keep. You can do it!

For more information on pruning fruit trees, check out the following sources from Colorado State and other universities:

Cornell Cooperative Extension - Pruning Apple Trees

CSU Fact Sheet - Training and Pruning Fruit Trees 

Utah State - Pruning Fruit Trees: Clip with Confidence!

Educational Video Series from Montana State 

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