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Deciduous Fruit Tree Pruning

Mar 1, 2020

Spring is upon us, so that means it’s time to get your fruit trees pruned! Check out this article about deciduous fruit tree pruning, written by the Backyard Gardener.

Deciduous fruit trees benefit from yearly pruning throughout their productive lifespan. However, it is difficult to describe the pruning process in writing. Each tree has individual characteristics that make it nearly impossible to generalize. In addition, there are multiple approaches, most of which are valid and dependent on individual preferences. I’ll do my best to provide theoretical information in the remainder of the column.

Pruning is critical to maintaining deciduous fruit tree health and productivity. Pruning also creates a desirable structure for supporting the fruit crop and can keep the tree a more manageable size. That being said, no pruning should occur without good reasons to do so. Winter pruning often causes a tree to respond vigorously. often too vigorously, when large limbs are removed. Conversely, summer pruning does not cause as drastic a growth response and is often used to remove selected branches without initiating as much regrowth.

Some fruit growers prefer trees that are trained to a “central leader”. This strategy is most often used with apples and pears and requires removal of selected branches from the trunk while leaving behind strategically spaced side branches (called scaffold branches). “Open-center” pruning removes the central leader at a very young age (preferably right after planting) to develop a tree that spreads outward from the trunk allowing light to penetrate and air to circulate in the center of the tree. Open-center pruning is often used for stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, and cherries). I also prune my apple trees to an open center which keeps them smaller and easier to harvest.

All trees, whether fruit or ornamental, should be pruned to remove crossing and inwardly growing branches. Dead and diseased wood should also be removed. Sometimes fruit trees have been neglected and require extensive pruning. In these cases, I recommend addressing the most crucial problems first and leaving the less important issues for summer or next year. As a general rule, you should not remove more than one-quarter to one-third of the live canopy in any given year. More than this can be removed from younger peach and nectarine trees due to their vigorous growth and tendency to die back when branches are too dense.

Most apples and pears produce fruit on spurs: shortened twigs where flowers are produced. These spurs usually become productive at 3 and can continue 10 or more years. Plums, apricots, and cherries produce fruit on shorter-lived spurs. Peaches and nectarines produce fruit predominantly on the previous year’s wood. This is critical when planning your pruning strategy for each of these species. In general peaches and nectarines should be pruned more aggressively than the others to produce the desired quantity and quality of fruit bearing wood for the following year.

Large pruning cuts should be kept to a minimum. These cuts take longer to heal and will often cause water sprouts (vigorous vegetative shoots) to grow in that vicinity during the following growing season. If you must make large cuts, do not use a pruning sealant to cover the wound. Simply allow the cut surface to callous over naturally. Finally, use only clean, sharp pruning tools. Soak the loppers and hand pruners in rubbing alcohol (or an antibacterial/antiviral disinfectant solution) for 5 to 10 minutes between trees and especially after pruning diseased material.

Three years ago, some Master Gardener volunteers and I created four YouTube videos that describe and demonstrate deciduous fruit tree pruning principles and techniques. There is also a short video discussing pruning tools, sanitation, and safety. These are available online HERE.

This article was written by Jeff Schalau, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County. You can find the original article here!

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