How to Prune Fruit Trees
We always like to encourage gardeners to ‘have a go’ with pruning, trees are pretty tough and will bounce back readily – even if pruned with a chainsaw!
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.
Please note that it isn’t always easy to give advice about individual trees without having the tree in front of us. If you need more information then there are many good books on the subject, or, if you have a copy of Nick Dunn’s ‘Trees for your garden’, turn to page 294.
Why do we prune?
- To let in sunlight and air by removing congested and crossing branches to produce better quality fruit in appearance, flavour and size.
- To help the tree develop a strong branch structure to support better crop yields.
- To encourage flower and fruit buds.
- To limit the size and shape of the tree.
- To remove damaged or diseased wood.
When and how hard?
- The general rule should be little and often rather than take drastic action every ten years.
- Apples and Pears can be pruned anytime and hard if necessary.
- Stone fruit (Plums, Cherries, Peaches, etc.) are best pruned in the summer and only lightly.
- Medlars and Quinces can be pruned anytime but best to prune lightly.
- Walnuts prefer to not be pruned at all. Hazels can be coppiced.
Pruning fruit trees that we have produced and supplied in a pot
Our container grown fruit trees will already have been pruned to create a specific form. This will be marked on the tag label, e.g. bush, half-standard, cordon, etc. Most will be two years old, having been grown in the field for one year and in the container for a second year.
Bushes and Half-standards
These two forms are the most popular and traditional shapes for gardens and orchards. Bushes are topped after the first year at 75cm and half-standards are topped at 1.3m. Topping the tree (cutting the central leader/stem) encourages branching so with bushes it makes the tree easier to manage and the fruit easier to pick; half-standards are taller so are ideal for creating a larger crown and having more space beneath the tree for a bench or to keep chickens, etc. Obviously the larger the crown the more productive the tree can be.
Bushes can be grown on a range of rootstocks from dwarfing to semi-vigorous. Half-standards require extra vigour so are usually grown on semi-vigorous rootstocks. See here for our rootstock diagram.
For both bushes and 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 we would advise removing most of the fruit to enable the tree to focus its energies on establishing a good root system and strong formative branch structure.
This initial pruning may seem harsh but will pay dividends later on as little further pruning will be needed other than occasional ‘tidying up’.
Fruit trees in our Patio range will be grown on dwarfing rootstocks or will be naturally dwarfing varieties. These are unlikely to need much pruning, other than perhaps a bit of ‘tidying up’ of the tips. We would advise thinning fruit in very productive years as heavy crops can break the small branches.
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 fruit on the branches of the weaker variety to keep the tree balanced, or prune back a variety if it is noticeably stronger.
Cordons are hard pruned to maintain as a column with fruiting spurs all the way along. They are an excellent way to grow fruit in more restricted spaces. To ensure sunlight reaches the full length they are better grown at a 45 degree angle and supported with a stake or on wires (fruit needs sunlight to ripen properly). Because they need to be hard pruned they are only suitable for apples and pears. The pruning of cordons need not be very precise, just snip off tips back to two or three leaves or buds each year.
The key to maintaining step-overs it to prune off any vertical spurs back to two or three leaves or buds each year. As with cordons, the level of hard pruning means that step-overs are only really suitable for apples and pears, not stone fruit such as plums or peaches. We grow step-overs on dwarfing rootstocks (apple = M27; pear = Quince C) as they don’t need much vigour to do well. We would recommend planting them about two metres apart.
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. This will also encourage flower and fruit bud for the following year. Cut back vertical spurs to two or three leaves or buds.
We grow espaliers on semi-vigorous rootstocks (apples = MM106; pear = Quince A) so it is possible to grow four or even five tiers. We would recommend they are planted two or three metres apart with tiers spaced about 40cm apart.
This is a more informal shape that involves tying back of shoots and a lighter approach to pruning. Stone fruit are well suited to this form (as well as apples and pears) so we produce a range of fan trained plums, gages, peaches, nectarines etc. These are also grown on semi-vigorous rootstocks and we would advise planting two to three metres apart. A light pruning of tips every August and tying shoots back against a frame is all that is needed.
Pruning Bare Root Fruit 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 as a maiden.
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
It is best to take a simple approach to pruning later on. In the past very little pruning was ever carried out and yet trees still produced fruit year on year. 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. Here are a few tips:
Apples & 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 (Plums, Cherries, Gages, etc)
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.