Most people fall into one of three categories when it comes to pruning their fruit trees: absolutely no idea what to do, to terrified to touch it or full steam ahead. Each of these has the potential to damage your tree but can be avoided by doing a little research and by following some simple steps. This blog will focus on the when and why of fruit tree pruning as well as the importance of setting pruning goals. Head over to our general tree pruning blog for details on how to make proper pruning cuts and the necessary equipment list.
The first thing you need is a reason for trimming the tree. This may sound silly but it is the main key for getting an outcome you will be happy with. For that to happen you need to have a clear picture of what your goals are. If you just go out and start cutting things just because they are there and easy to reach you will end up with a hack job that may be impossible to repair. Some of these reasons could be that the tree is too large, the fruit is out of reach, it looks sick and you want to improve the health of the tree or maybe it just hangs too low and you can’t walk/mow under it.
Step two is to pick the best time to start cutting. It is always tempting to start when the weather is nice and it is an almost pleasant task. Unfortunately the best time to trim a fruit tree is in the dormant season, aka late winter or early spring prior to bud break. One advantage to this timing is that it is easier to see and correct the structure of the branches. The main time to avoid any serious pruning is during the late summer, this would stimulate a large flush of young tender growth that will be vulnerable to any kind of early freeze. Light pruning in summer to remove dead, diseased or insect infested limbs is just fine, even encouraged.
Our next step is to understand that there is a major difference between pruning a newly planted fruit tree and one that has been neglected or is overgrown. You can think of it as the difference between getting a puppy and adopting an older dog. A newly planted tree has the advantage of allowing you to pick the variety you want and hasn’t picked up any bad habits yet but you do have to go through a period of maturing and “potty training”. The older tree will already have an established structure (sometimes good, sometimes bad) and there is no changing what kind of fruit you are going to get.
The newly planted/young tree is one where we can start small and do a minimal amount of work on it each season. You get to pick the branches and buds you want to use to establish a balanced structure as the tree grows. The older tree will already have a set structure and will need 1-3 years of more intensive pruning to get it into a desirable form. In an ideal world, the first year is used to simply remove the dead or broken limbs of either type of tree. This will then give you a better picture of what you are working with and allow you to plan the next season’s growth. Because next season is decision time, aka that goal/ reason for pruning thing we talked about earlier.
There are basically 3 types of pruning methods/ plans for fruit trees depending on the form you want: central leader, modified leader and open center. For a small dwarf tree I like the central or modified leader methods depending on the space I have for the tree to grow in and the trees natural structure. The central leader method is similar to that which you would do for an ornamental tree, with the focus being on the spacing and structure of each limb in relation to each other. The modified leader method has its focus more on the overall size and shape of the tree. Open center pruning is used for trees that will reach a larger height/ width. The focus is to open up the tree up for air moveent, add light penetration and to help maintain the height.
The last point is to not try to achieve all your pruning goals in one go. Start with structure pruning, then as the tree matures, you will move to doing a yearly maintenance prune. Always start with the obvious limbs (dead, broken, insect infested, crossing or rubbing,) and never take out more than ¼ of the trees crown at any one time. Keep your cuts as small as you can and don’t overdo it. I have attached a link to a PDF that was written by the Iowa State University extension if you are interested in doing some more intense reading on the pruning of fruit trees.
Remember, it’s your tree, don’t be afraid to prune it! Or feel free to give us a call at (208) 523-5296 if you think you might be interested in getting a free estimate from one of our arborists.