How to Prune Fruit Trees

There's something unsettling about the time to cut, or not to cut, your fruit tree. And by cut I mean prune, but in everyone’s mind this is substantial, and possibly brutal, tree surgery. Is surgery really necessary?! Perhaps we’re best to leave it, I’m mean things really aren’t that dire. Yep, pruning your fruit tree sometimes feels like life or death.

The theories on when to prune fruit trees vary like the winds in early spring. There are just so many times, and ways, to trim a tree that all seem definitive. Add to that so many different tree varieties, that if you googled “when to prune a fruit tree” (like you may be doing now), you’ll be thrown a full spectrum of methods for nearly all varieties. Early spring, late winter, peak summer, mid autumn….gentle trim, hard cut back, second year growth….Edward Scissorhands, Vidal Sassoon…

Perhaps the point this makes - louder than any - is that the best time to prune a fruit tree is whenever a tree needs it. Which may seem like ambiguous advice, thrown amongst ambiguity, but what I mean is that there are really few bad times to cut. Think of it as you would your own haircut.  There just comes the point when you need to go to the hairdresser. Despite knowing it’ll be a couple of weeks - maybe a month - until you are comfortable into your new hair style, you can’t let your Saturday night date or mid-week meeting, deter you from necessary hair maintenance. Just cut your damn hair.

There are really only two occasions when pruning is not advisable. The first is when a tree is becoming loaded with fruit. Even Donald Trump would agree that this is a “really bad deal”. A cut back then will deprive you of the reason you’re growing the tree, so it an obvious no-no. The second, and just as obvious time not to prune, is when the tree is the perfect size, shape and loaded with fresh, lush growth. There’s no point playing with perfection just because you feel like giving the secateurs a work out.

Pruning Fruit Trees

The most basic concept of pruning is that by cutting it back it will promote new growth, and that’s a good thing because it encourages more fruit production. Fruit trees that are left to their own devices, without pruning, tend to become hard stemmed. This restricts new growth, which ultimately restricts fruit growth. To go forward, you have to go back first, and this is what a cut back achieves. It unlocks fresh and vigorous growth, turning stale trees vibrant again.

When pruning you need to ensure your tools are sharp and sterile. I know we’re trying to avoid the surgery analogy, but imagine a surgeon operating with blunt and dirty tools? Blunt secateurs will cause splitting of branches that can promote a host of potential problems. Clean cuts, using clean tools, will help a tree recover as quickly as possible.

In determining shape you need to consider the ability for the tree to hold good fruit as well as suiting the space you’re growing it in. So rather than sculpting rabbits or fairies, the shape of you trees needs to be better geared for production purposes. Make sure that there are 4 to 5 strongly defined arms to the tree, that will allow good airflow between the foliage and fruit, once it comes.

Times haves passed when we could allow our trees to grow to their own devices. We are now growing in smaller and smaller spaces and so our trees need to be shaped to suit us too. It isn’t all about your fruit tree, this is a give and take relationship on so many levels. Whether you are after a tall slim tree or a short wide one, it is where you cut along the branch that will determine whether the plant grows out or skyward.

Pruning fruit tree

Firstly, always prune at a bud junction. A bud is from where new growth will shoot, so by cutting as close as possible to buds it means no wasted energy on non-productive parts. To encourage the plant to grow tall cut immediately after a bud that is heading skyward. Similarly, to encourage the plant to grow branch out, cut immediately after a bud that is pointing sideways.

As mentioned, it should be strongly defined and with good airflow. This allows it to hold a good amount of fruit (not a burden of fruit) that will ripen without the troubles of pests and disease. Typically we don’t need enough oranges to get the footy team through a seasons of half times. Whatever oranges we do get should be sweet and juicy, rather than sour and dry, so this means growing quality fruit rather than as much as you can fit on the tree. When growing apples and some stone fruit, you will need to thin out clusters of fruit to ensure that which you leave on the tree will develop properly. It can often be the difference between sweet or sour apples. Give and take.

Timing… so when to prune your fruit trees? Of course, there are a couple of differing opinions on this, but one things we can all agree on is that it’s not immediately after watching Edward Scissorhands. Rather, prune after the tree has fruited or when in dire need of it. That typically means once a year for deciduous and some evergreen, but citrus that fruit twice a year can do with two if you’re feeling in the mood. The best time, if there is one, is at the beginning of winter when most fruit trees are dormant. If you really need to get in there and take away considerable foliage, it’s best to do it while the plant is asleep.

Remember that most deciduous fruit trees develop fruit on new growth therefore seasonal pruning is essential for fruit production. If you have a tree that is still establishing to full size, trim back last year’s growth, anywhere from 25-50% – this means new fruit and continued growth. For trees that are full size, cut back most of last season’s growth.

For citrus which suffer from the gall wasp, rather than pruning out every new piece you come across, make a concerted effort every few years to eradicate the diseased branches. Citrus can live with gall wasp but over time it does affect fruit production. A plant cut back every few years will outperform one that is cut back every few months.

Give your trees a feed after you have pruned them to help invigorate the new growth and maintain good health. Don’t expect to see a fast comeback if pruning now in winter - when deciduous trees are dormant and most others slowed down by cooler temperatures. Once the warm rays of spring hit, and warmer temperatures accelerate the flow of water through the tree’s veins, new growth is then imminent.    

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