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Gardening With Allen: Yearly pruning stimulates growth

My fruit trees need to be trimmed. Is this a good time to prune? Could you give me some tips on how to prune my fruit trees?

Fruit trees need yearly pruning for best fruit yields. Fruit trees are best pruned any time from November through March, before they begin new growth. I have even pruned as late as early May with good results.

The main pruning job for the first few years is to establish four to six main branches around the tree. The lowest branch can be as low as 2 feet, but can be higher if needed to leave room for mowing.

Select branches spaced 6 to 12 inches apart along the trunk. Branches with wide crotch angles to the trunk are strongest. If a main branch is less than 45 degrees it can be widened by pruning just above an outward growing side branch the next year.

When trees grow too high for easy picking, height can be reduced by pruning back main branches to an outward facing side branch. The side branch should be at least one third the size of the main branch.

The main pruning job on established trees is to thin out some of the small side branches. This allows more light to reach lower branches so that they will produce fruit at levels easier to pick.

Most side branches that grow straight up (called water sprouts) should be removed. Shortening a few of the water sprouts will reduce subsequent resprouting. Branches growing in toward the center of the tree should be removed. Outward growing branches can be retained. However, if two branches are crossing or rubbing against each other, one should be removed.

Apple, pear, cherry, apricot and plum trees bear most of their fruit on short, twiggy branches called spurs. These should not be removed unless dead or broken. Of course, some spurs will be removed with the excess branches that are removed to create better light conditions for the lower and inner branches. 

Part of the fruit on apricots and plums and all of the fruit on peaches and nectarines grows on the previous season’s growth. Yearly pruning stimulates vegetative growth which becomes the fruiting wood for the next season. If you look closely, you will see that flower buds (which develop into fruit) are larger or fatter than leaf and stem buds.

Side branches that have grown more than 2 feet the previous year can be shortened. They should be pruned back to a side branch or bud that is facing the way you want the branch to grow. Generally outward facing buds and branches are chosen.

The best way to reduce development of water sprouts is to remove them in early summer when they are less than 10 inches long. At that time they are soft and can be snapped off. Snapping removes lower, latent buds that are not removed by cutting.

For a book on pruning all kinds of plants, I recommend “A Guide to Pruning” by Cass Turnbull.


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