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Pruning your fruit trees: essential basics.

TO ENSURE AN abundance of fruit over many years and maintain a tree's shape, pruning a mature fruit tree is an important part of its annual care. How well you prune it will determine its shape, height, and quality and quantity of fruit.

Since flowering and fruiting habits differ among fruit types (peaches produce fruit on year-old wood, apples on long-lived spurs), you need to learn specific techniques for each type you grow.

Here we discuss basic methods of pruning deciduous fruit trees, demonstrated by Mark Sammons of the UC Santa Cruz Agroecology Center and arborist James Barry of Southern California. Starting on page 50, we give specifics for eight kinds that need pruning every year. Our recommendations are for trees at least 4 years old (for early-training tips, see the Sunset Western Garden Book).

December through February is the best time to prune except in the coldest climates, where you should prune late in the dormant season to avoid winter injury.



Since a fruit tree is grown for production, maintaining and renewing fruiting wood are the primary goals of pruning.

Pruning is also important to maintain plant vigor, minimize overcropping (undersize and overabundant fruit), and help even out annual fruit production on trees, such as apples, that otherwise may bear heavily one year and lightly the next. But be careful: excessive pruning can drastically reduce your crop.

Annual pruning generally involves making many small cuts. However, if your tree hasn't been pruned for several years, you will have to prune more vigorously (preferably over 2 years) and may need to remove some larger branches that are competing for space.



To maintain fruiting wood on a mature tree, you must prune to keep the branch framework open so sunlight reaches the inner portions. An overly dense canopy results in a smaller, poorer crop on the lower branches.

Opening the framework requires heavier pruning in the upper, outer parts and removing twiggy growth in the center, unless the tree is trained to a central leader (an upright main stem.) This is mainly done with thinning cuts that remove the entire shoot back to a side branch.

With a pruning saw, make your large cuts first. Remove any overly aggressive leaders (upright branches growing much faster than other ones), cutting each back to a strong lateral (side branch). Make cuts just outside the branch bark ridges--where the branch meets the trunk or another branch--so the final wound is circular, not oval.

Then remove dead, damaged, and diseased wood. Thin interior growth by pruning out crossing and competing branches and shoots heading into the center of the tree.

Next, prune branch by branch, starting at the base of the tree. Remove suckers, watersprouts, and other unproductive vertical growth. If the tree is healthy and you don't want it to get taller, cut the most vigorous shoots back to a lateral.

Making cuts (cutting back shoots) stimulates growth of new fruiting wood, the primary goal of pruning all of the trees discused here. Head back growth according to instructions for individual trees. Make all heading cuts just beyond an outward-facing bud (except as noted under apples).



For optimum growth and fruiting, the following trees require annual pruning in winter. Because climbing in the tree can damage fruiting spurs, it's usually advisable to prune from a ladder.

Apple and pear. These trees produce fruit on fruiting spurs (short shoots with round, plump flower buds) that are most productive for 5 to 7 years. Pruning encourages spur formation and maintains fruiting wood. Thin out dense areas, remove unproductive wood, and head back shoots at the top of the tree by a third.

To encourage fruiting spurs, cut short laterals back to three or four buds, but leave shoots under 3 inches unpruned. Also head back slightly downward laterals; cut to an upward-facing bud.

Apricot. The common older variety, 'Royal' (or "blenheim'), bears most fruit on spurs along branches that are up to 3 years old; many fruits also appear near the midpoint of branches that grew the previous season. As you work repairing and improving the tree's structure, completely remove about a third of last season's shoots. Shorten remaining shoots by a third to a half.

'Floragold' and similar semidwarf apricots bear fruit on 2- or 3-year-old stems. Thin as for 'Royal', then cut a third of remaining shoots to just beyond 2-year-old fruit buds.

Cherry, sweet. Only light pruning is normally required because fruit is borne on short, long-lived spurs. Thin top as necessary to restrain size and to improve light penetration. Lightly head back young shoots of nonbearing but vigorous trees.

Peach and nectarine. Because the best fruiting wood occurs on shoots that are only a year old, these trees require the most annual pruning. Prune early-maturing varieties heaviest, late maturers somewhat less.

After basic structural and corrective pruning, completely remove up to two-thirds of last year's shoots, so remaining stems are about 8 to 12 inches apart, then shorten those by two-thirds.

Plum and prune. Japanese plums require heavy pruning, but less than peaches. Fruit is borne on spurs, so renewal of fruiting wood is important. Heading back fruiting branches strengthens them and prevents breakage from heavy crops.

Thin out old and new growth to improve structure. Head back most remaining branches to a third or a quarter of their length, leaving some 12- to 18-inch shoots unheaded to develop spurs. Older trees require more heading back.

European plums bear fruit on long-lived spurs, producing well for several years with light pruning.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:MacCaskey, Michael; Swezey, Lauren Bonar
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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