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Fruit Tree Pruning Advice

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When a Master Gardener, during a pruning demonstration, reduced a beautiful-looking tree to a vertical stick, I was sure that I had just witnessed a crime. Little did I know that, due to my lack of knowledge, it was I who was committing injustice to my own trees.

There is an art and science to pruning and it is important that your objective is very clear. It was not a crime that I had witnessed. I just did not understand the objective.

The principal objectives of fruit-tree pruning are: to direct or control growth, shape and size; to stimulate new fruiting wood and encourage flower and fruit production; to remove broken, damaged and diseased wood; and to space new wood to allow good air circulation and sunlight penetration into the canopy.

Prune annually in late winter or early spring for fruit production and some tree shaping. (Note: apricots should be pruned six weeks before rain is expected or after the rainy season has ended to prevent water-borne disease.) Prune in spring to summer to control growth, do some shaping, and help thin fruit.

There are three pruning phases in the life of a deciduous fruit tree:

The first pruning phase occurs at planting, when the first cut fosters development of a vase-shaped structure. After a bare root tree is planted, the trunk should be “headed back” at 24 – 32 inches above the soil surface. This most important cut serves to establish low origination points of structural branches which allow most pruning, harvesting and pest management to be performed without a ladder during the life of the tree.

The second phase of pruning begins in the second year after planting and establishes tree structure. The initial low heading cut results in several branches growing outward at various directions and angles. Three or four strong upwardly-growing branches, spaced at intervals around the trunk, should be selected as main branches (scaffold). Additional branches should be removed. Pruning in the next few years should concentrate on structural development of these main branches and well-spaced secondary branches (laterals).

The third phase of pruning begins with the onset of maturity, five to seven years for most fruit trees. Pruning at this stage invigorates and directs the growth of the tree with a goal of producing new, fruiting wood. In home orchards, peaches should be pruned most severely and cherries the least.

There are important differences between each type of fruit tree. For example, peaches bear fruit on terminal wood of the previous season. Therefore, well-spaced lateral shoots with flower buds are retained. It is common to thin (remove) half to two-thirds of peach laterals and to shorten (head) remaining fruiting wood. Apricots, plums and cherries bear fruit laterally on spurs which live three, five, and ten years, respectively.

Master Gardeners will demonstrate live fruit tree pruning on February 4, 2023, at the Tuolumne County Master Gardener demonstration garden located behind Cassina High School, 251 South Baretta Street, Sonora. Hours are from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm. Demonstrations start at 10:30 am.

This article adapted from University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Kern County “Planting and Early Care of Deciduous Fruit Trees” and former UCCE Tuolumne County Master Gardeners Gary Fowler and Jim Gormely.