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Tree Pruning Basics

Tree pruning is best performed before your fruit tree begins to leaf out in the spring. Check to see when your last freeze is projected to be and aim to prune a week or two after that date. Where we are (Zone 9) that date is usually a few weeks into February, so we aim to prune in late February into early March.

Before you make your first cut begin by cleaning your tools. Use Rubbing alcohol on your pruning shears before and after pruning each tree to reduce the risk of spreading disease.

We recommend using scissor type pruning shears (shears with 2 sharp blades that cut like a pair of scissors) to make clean cuts. whichever shears you have, make sure the blades are nice and sharp. Not only do sharp blades make pruning easier, a clean cut will heal much more quickly and cleanly than a torn or smashed branch.

Root suckers, especially ones below the graft, should be removed. These will pop up more on younger trees and should be removed through out the season before they become woody if possible. Make a clean cut as close to the trunk as possible, without cutting into the trunk. Root suckers divert energy from your fruit tree and will not produce fruit if left to grow.

Branches that cross each other and either rub together or will rub together as they mature should be removed. Rubbing branches cause sores in the bark that create areas where the risk of disease is high.

Branches that grow in an upright position either parallel to the main trunk or towards the main trunk should also be removed. Branches should grow out and away from the main trunk to increase airflow through the tree. Reduced airflow through the tree leads to a higher risk of bacterial infections.

Branches that are growing in a parallel or downward angle towards the ground should be removed. These branches once set with fruit have a higher risk of breaking or coming in contact with the ground resulting in a higher risk of disease.

If you are wanting taller trees with a branching canopy then you'll want to prune your tree with a tall central leader. The central leader should be at the center of the tree where all the branches originate and should be the tallest point of your tree. With this style of shaping/pruning the branches are evenly spaced, growing out and away from the main trunk resulting in good air flow through the canopy. There should be no risk of sores due to branches rubbing, and are shaped in a manor where the tree can support the weight of the fruit without damage. You may need a ladder to collect high growing fruits in the future.

Pruning your tree in a production or "Dwarfing" method requires you to prune the central leader resulting in a very different looking tree. Any tree regardless of whether it is labeled as "Dwarfing" or whether it is on a dwarfing root stock can be pruned in this manner. The central leader is cut low not far above where it connects to the root stock. Make sure you know where your root stock ends and your desired fruit tree variety begins. from that point the tree is encouraged to branch out from the main trunk in a wide spreading manor. Each branch is also cut to promote more branching once the desired width is obtained. Subsequent fruiting branches are kept low in height making picking easier. The downside to this method is it does reduce the total lifespan of the tree. The same pruning considerations to airflow, rubbing, and shaping to allow for more weight on fruit bearing branches are all still maintained

Pruning your fruit tree for the first time can be a very daunting task. It does get easier and if you make mistakes remember that trees are very resilient. The best way to learn is to just do it. Start with the easy and obvious cuts and work your way from there. Take breaks. I usually do my pruning in two days removing all the obvious things one day and come back with fresh eyes a few days later to do the final shaping. Have fun, there is nothing more gratifying than a job well done even if there were mistakes made. You did it, take pride in that.

For more in depth discussion on pruning, read our article on Pruning Trees for Health and Production to learn more about controlling diseases as well as food forest vs production pruning. As always we are here to help and answer any questions you may have, simply fill out the "contact us" form and we'll reach out as soon as we can. Happy Gardening!

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