How to Prune Fruit Trees

How to prune fruit trees is one of our most commonly asked questions. To which we always like to encourage gardeners to ‘have a go’ themselves!

The general principles outlined below are a basic guide which we hope will give you confidence. Personal experience and patience will bring more confidence still.

We prune to let in sunlight and air by removing congested and crossing branches to produce better quality fruit in appearance, flavour and size. Pruning also helps the tree develop a strong branch structure to support better crop yields. It encourages flower and fruit buds as well as maintaining the size and shape of the tree and removing any damaged or diseased wood.

The general rule for pruning should be little and often rather than take drastic action every ten years. In the video, Nick Dunn gives a simple guide on how to prune your young fruit trees during the winter months.

How to Prune Container Grown Fruit Trees

Our container grown fruit trees will already have been pruned to create a specific form. This will be marked on the white tag label, e.g. bush, half-standard, cordon, etc. Most will be two years old, having grown in the field for one year and a container for second year.

Bushes

Bushes are one of the most popular and traditional shapes for gardens. They are topped (cutting the central leader/stem) after the first year at 75cm. This encourages branching, making the tree easier to manage and fruit easier to pick.

For bushes, we would advise reducing the length of the main branches by about a third when planting. Then taking out any smaller branches that are beginning to grow inwards. It is also a good idea to remove any ‘feathers’ that may be growing from the lower part of the central stem beneath the branches. These are unlikely to be productive and will take valuable nutrients from the main crown of the tree.

During the first fruiting year, remove most of the fruit to enable the tree to focus its energies on establishing a good root system and strong formative branch structure.

Half Standards

We would advise reducing the length of the main branches by about a third when planting and taking out any smaller branches that are beginning to grow inwards. It is also a good idea to remove any ‘feathers’ that may be growing from the lower part of the central stem beneath the branches, as these are unlikely to be productive and will take valuable nutrients from the main crown of the tree.

During the first fruiting year, remove most of the fruit to enable the tree to focus its energies on establishing a good root system and strong formative branch structure.

Patio Trees

Patio trees are unlikely to need much pruning, other than perhaps a bit of ‘tidying up’ of the tips. Thin the fruit in very productive years as heavy crops can break the small branches.

Family Trees

Family trees are shaped as bushes so require a similar style of pruning to bushes as outlined above. It may, however, be necessary to remove the fruit on the branches of the weaker variety to keep the tree balanced, or prune back a variety if it is noticeably stronger.

Cordons

Cordons are hard pruned to maintain as a column with fruiting spurs all the way along. To ensure sunlight reaches the full length they are better grown at a 45 degree angle and supported with a stake or on wires. The pruning of cordons need not be very precise, just snip off tips back to two or three leaves or buds each year.

Step Overs

The key to maintaining step-overs is to prune off any vertical spurs back to two or three leaves or buds each year. We grow step-overs on dwarfing rootstocks, M27 (apples) and Quince C (pears) as they don’t need much vigour to do well.

Espaliers

The espaliers we grow have two tiers with a leader to grow on further tiers if desired. The hard pruning required to develop the horizontal tiers means that this form is only suitable for apples and pears. Stone fruit, such as plums, are tip bearing and will not produce fruiting spurs along the branches or respond well to such pruning. The old saying with espaliers is ‘a tier a year’ so to grow another tier it is best to top the leader at the required height in the winter to encourage new soft growth.

The best time of year to prune existing tiers is late June to early August when the new growth is flexible and can be easily tied down to the wires. Cut back vertical spurs to two or three leaves or buds.

Its possible to grow four or even five tiers.

Fan Trained

This is a more informal shape that involves tying back of shoots and a lighter approach to pruning. A light pruning of tips every August and tying shoots back against a frame is all that is needed.

How to Prune Bare Root Trees

Maiden Trees

If planting maiden trees for standards, prune off all lower branches and leave the main leader of the tree undisturbed to ‘run on’ the first year. Thereafter, when the tree has reached approx 7′ 6″, a further cleaning up of the stem to 5′ 6″ can take place. The tree will form a natural head over a period of time. In circumstances where a maiden tree is over 6′ 6″, the tree can have its top pruned out at planting time. This will encourage the development of side branches in the first year.

Two year Straight Lead Trees

After planting any tree over 6′ 6″ can be topped off at this height and all side branches can be removed up to 4′ 6″ in year one and 6′ 6″ at the end of year two.

Where a straight lead is smaller, then treat it as a maiden.

Standard Trees

After planting, reduce all branches in the head of the tree by one third. This will reduce planting shock and encourage the formation of fruiting laterals.

Pruning in Later Years

Very little pruning should be carried out in the early years after the formative pruning explained above. It is better to wait for the tree to crop before pruning.

Apples and Pears

When you do prune remove a small proportion of the branches back to the main stem leaving a well-balanced tree. This is better than a snipping approach around the perimeter. This lets in light and air, provides an opportunity for the tree to produce new productive branches, and reduces pest and disease opportunities.

If a variety tends to be biennial (cropping every other year) prune in the ‘on’ year only in the summer before the end of June when the tree is heavily laden with fruit. This will help to promote fruit bud for the next year and increase the size and quality of fruit in the current season.

Stone Fruit

All stone fruit should be pruned as little as possible restricting this only to when the leaves are on the tree and better still after the fruit has been picked. This reduces the risk of bacterial disease. Pruning should be to primarily remove damaged or diseased branches. Remember that too much heavy pruning when the tree is young will only encourage vegetative growth rather than fruit bud.

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