Ruth Correll: Time to plan for pruning your fruit trees

Ruth Correll • Jan 16, 2018 at 6:14 PM

It may not sound or feel like time to be outside pruning fruit trees, but pruning during dormancy is the ideal time to prune. Pruning fruit trees is a critical orchard management technique needed to improve overall fruit quality. Pruning techniques vary according to stage of tree growth and age of tree.

A newly planted bare-root tree needs the top pruned back to match the bottom of the tree. When a bare-root tree is initially dug up, it loses a considerable amount of its roots. The decreased root system will not be able to support an unchanged top. By pruning the top back, you balance the tree and provide it with a good foundation for future growth.

During a tree’s juvenile years between one to six years old, pruning stimulates growth. Producers often think this sounds contradictory, but by removing growth you can actually stimulate more growth. Research indicates pruned trees will outgrow unpruned trees of the same age. 

Also during these early years, it is also time to start training fruit trees by shaping their growth. Through manipulation of the growth pattern, you can increase production and decrease the likelihood of limb breakage. By opening the center of some fruit trees you can increase airflow and potentially decrease disease.

After the fruit tree has been established and trained, you will need to provide some maintenance pruning but less pruning is required if done annually.  Fortunately, this will not be as intensive. During all stages of a tree’s life you should first start by removing damaged, diseased or dead limbs first.

Pome fruit – apple, pear and cherry – tree pruning is best in late fall to early winter. Stone fruit – peach, nectarine – tree pruning is ideal in late winter to early spring. During the winter, trees will stop top growth and defoliate, which will give you an unobstructed view of the limbs and allow you to make better decisions regarding the cuts. There are also times when a tree may require pruning during the growing season, particularly if it has received storm damage. It is also possible that new growth has caused limbs to touch and rub.

Prune to a bud. Make sharp, clean cuts close enough so that you won’t leave a clumsy stub that’s hard to heal over. Stay far enough above the bud so it won’t die back. Slant the cuts, and the new growth will develop beautifully. Every branch has buds pointed in various directions. Since you want vigorous new growth to spread away from the center of the tree, make your cut above a bud that’s aimed outward. This helps your tree grow into a spreading shape.

Another growth pattern to watch for are narrow, V-shape crotches, which are open invitations to disastrous splitting later on, particularly when your tree is ripening a bumper crop. Choose wide crotches, which approach a 35-40-degree angle.

Water sprouts are fast growing and should be pruned during the growing season to limit energy used by the tree that it could devote to beneficial growth.  They are usually seen on the trunk of the tree but sometimes at low branches and at limb crotches. These should be removed anytime they are observed.

Training the fruit tree is also important. Training is based on the type of tree. Stone fruit trees are trained with an open center.  This training method usually requires a specific height, between 18 to 36 inches, to be determined. Above that height, the central trunk is pruned with four to six main branches evenly spaced around your tree selected below this point. These branches should be close to a 45-degree angle. Pome fruit trees are usually trained with a central leader. A central leader tree has a main branch – what you might call the trunk – that secondary limbs ascend.

Many fruit-growing enthusiasts neglect the annual training and pruning of fruit trees. Without training and pruning, however, fruit trees will not develop proper shape and form. Properly trained and pruned trees will yield high-quality fruit much sooner and live significantly longer.

For more information, contact the UT-TSU Extension Office in Wilson County at 615-444-9584. You can also find us on Facebook or visit extension.tennessee.edu/wilson. Ruth Correll, UT Extension-TSU Cooperative Extension agent in Wilson County, may be reached at 615-444-9584 or [email protected]


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