Edible Landscaping: Fruit Tree Pruning Tips
Updated: Jul 3, 2018
Fruit trees are an important part of edible landscaping. However, many people do not know how to properly care for the fruit trees that they plant. Fruit tree pruning, like so many garden topics, can lead to heated debate as to the proper approach and methodology. While there is no “right” way to prune a tree, there are some wrong ways. Before getting into specifics for fruit trees, let’s review some basic arboriculture facts:
1. Heading cuts (see image) bring a branch back to a lateral bud. This type of cut stimulates dense growth and branching below where the cut has been made. While this practice can be useful for certain ornamental shrubs, it is not generally recommended for trees because it encourages dense branching that often have weak connections
2. Thinning cuts (see image) remove an entire branch or shoot at a point of connection to another branch. Thinning cuts heal more readily and do not result in the overly branching associated with heading cuts.
Despite these facts, many fruit tree pruning books and videos will advise heading back all new growth by 1/3 each winter. Part of the reason for this recommendation is that large scale farms have used heading cuts to induce heavier production on younger trees, often at the expense of the overall long term health of those trees. Many industrial farms will also use massive hedgers to rapidly prune all trees uniformly. While the practice of heading back new growth might make sense for large agricultural operations, it is almost never a good idea for home-scale orchards and landscapes. Instead of heading back growth, I recommend a more mindful approach to pruning that relies on thinning cuts and training techniques to develop trees that have strong branch structure. This leads to higher quality fruit, fewer problems with pests and disease, and overall improved long term health of the trees.
For stone fruit, an open vase shape is the preferred training style while most other fruit trees are shaped to a central leader system. In an open vase tree, the center is left open and scaffold branches (usually 3-5) extend outward from the center. If you were to view an open vase tree from above it would resemble a cupped palm with fingers extending outward. In a central leader system, scaffold branches radiate out from a primary central leader. Christmas trees are a good example of a central leader branch structure, but not all central leader trees have such a regular branching pattern.
For both training systems, the first priority when pruning is to remove branches that are dead, diseased, damaged, or dysfunctional (often called the 4 D’s). Once this has been done, the next step is to give each branch its own room. If two branches are touching, one should be removed to give the other space. For fruit trees in particular, it is critical to consider how fruit will affect a branch later in the season. A branch that is upright this winter may hang down in summer when it becomes heavy with fruit. Branches that are on top of one another may prevent sunlight from reaching lower branches and result in lower quality fruit. Some branches may be kept this season with the intent to remove them the following year. Trees are long lived organisms and careful consideration for future growth will help guide your pruning strategy.
Ultimately, pruning is part science and part art form. The only way to get good at it is get out there and gives it a go. Adhering to common sense arboriculture principles and using thinning cuts as opposed to heading cuts will help ensure that your trees growth strong branches and are less susceptible to pests and diseases.