An Introduction to Pruning Fruit Trees

flower buds and spurs on fruit trees

It’s time we picked up the pace on these pruning blogs to help you all get the pruning done on your winter trees before Spring is upon us.   This week we’ll give you an introduction to pruning terminology and equipment before we hit you with pruning citrusnectarines, peaches, apples and pears.

Pruning a fruit tree is a conversation between you and the tree.   Some trees you don’t talk to very often, just a quick chat now and then.   Other trees like a big long natter on a regular basis.  Then you get the trees that are more like an argument, where you walk away not really knowing who came out on top.   Some conversations span years for a tree, as you and your secateurs have a future plan in mind that you know might take 2 or 3 winters pruning to achieve.

As a rule you’ll spend more time pruning when you first plant your trees to get the correct framework for future conversations.  But once you speak the pruning language and you know how a tree will respond to a certain cut, then your conversations will improve and when you revisit your handiwork the next winter you will be able to pick up where you left off.

Pruning a fruit tree without speaking the language is a recipe for disaster.  Chances are you’ll cut off the productive wood and have a poor harvest as a result.  Pruning is not difficult and well worth learning to ensure healthy and productive fruit trees.

To speak the pruning language there are a few basic terms to learn, think of it like beginners French.

Crotch:  The join where a branch connects to the trunk or where a branch forks.    Wide crotches are stronger and better.   Narrow crotches mean the growth is too close to the trunk so there won’t be good airflow around the branch and they also tend to break more easily. how to prune winter fruit trees Flower Bud:  In winter each branch will be lined with buds.   Flower buds are bigger than leaf buds and they swell up as Spring approaches.  Flower buds produce the fruit.

Leaf Bud:  Flatter and more solid looking buds than flower buds.  They produce leaves.

Spur:  Short stubby extrusions from older branches.  Spurs are a collection of buds that produce mostly fruit.  They produce fruit for a number of years so prune them sparingly.  Don’t think they’re stubby little messy branches and cut them off!

flower buds and spurs on fruit trees

Central Leader:  A term to describe the central trunk of a fruiting tree.   A tree with a central leader has a series of layers of branches coming off the main trunk at well spaced intervals.    This is a popular shape for apples and pears.

Lateral:  The branches coming off your main framework.   Laterals can be thinned and tipped during pruning to encourage new growth.

identifying tree parts when pruning fruit trees-01

First Year Wood / Second Year Wood:  You’ll often see descriptions in pruning books like “fruits on first year wood”.  Somewhat misleading term because what it means is the wood that grew last summer.   Fruiting on first year wood means summer 1. it grows, summer 2. it fruits.   First year wood is always at the end of branches.  Fruiting on second year wood means summer 1. it grows, summer 2. it grows, summer 3. it fruits.   As long as you know what wood a given tree fruits on you’ll know what to cut off.

Vase Shape:  A tree that has a framework of several branches, (typically 3 or 5),  that form a vase like, open centered shape from a low height up the trunk.   This shape increases light into the center of the tree to help fruit ripen and also increases airflow to reduce fungal disease.

how to prune fruit trees

Tying Down:  The practice of tying down branches to grow horizontally with string and tent pegs or strings  for the first couple of seasons.   This way of keeping fruiting wood lower works well for most apples and pears and some stone fruit and plums.   But some varieties just want to spring back and go skyward.

Water Shoots/Sprouts:  Vigorous fast growing vertical branches that suck energy from the tree and typically don’t fruit. Remove them.

Graft:  The point in a tree, usually near the base, where the variety of fruiting wood is connected to the root stock.  Not all fruit trees are grafted.   You can identify the graft easily on young trees but overtime it merges into the trunk. what do fruit tree grafts look like

Root-stock:  A variety of tree grown solely to use as a base for grafting other fruiting trees onto.   Root-stocks are chosen for various properties including disease resistance, vigorous growth habits, dwarfing growth habits, ability to tolerate poor soils.   The root-stock passes these properties onto the variety of tree that grows on it.  We could do a whole blog on the different root-stocks that are used.

Suckers:  New branches that come out of the base of the tree.  Remove them.  Sometimes they come from the root-stock because it is more vigorous than the grafted variety.  This is especially true on older trees where often, if left un-pruned the root-stock completely takes over.   Other varieties are just prone to suckering, eg. hazelnuts and un-grafted damson plums.   An old damson tree can resemble a mangrove swamp if the suckers have all been let grow.  Removing suckers keeps the base of the tree clear and the main growth vigorous. pruning rootstocks from fruit trees

 

remove mummies on fruit trees

Removing Mummies

When you are pruning, remove any dried fruit remaining from last years crop.    These are called mummies and can carry disease spores.

Equipment for Pruning

The photo below is my pruning kit.  It consists of two sizes of saw, a good pair of secateurs, a bottle of  pruning paste, a blade sharpener and a spray bottle of meths.   Some people also add a good pair of loppers to their pruning arsenal but my shoulders don’t get on with loppers.

I use two sizes of the Japanese Silky Pruning Saw, one for big work and a shorter blade for more delicate work where the longer blade would knock buds off or damage other branches.

I like the Silky saw because they are designed to cut on the pull stroke, not the push stroke, so require a lot less force to use.  The saw does the work for you with it’s two rows of teeth.

pruning equipment for fruit trees

I use a Japanese brand of secateurs too, the Okatsune Secateurs.   I find them a good fit for my little hand and the curved blades give a nice clean cut on the branch.   I use them for anything up to finger thickness and then I switch to the saw.  If you try and use secateurs for larger branches you will just mangle the bark around the cut and it will not heal cleanly, allowing fungal diseases to get into the tree.   Many folks prefer blunt nose secateurs for pruning like the Lowe brand.  You will find your own favourite.

The pruning paste is used to seal each cut of exposed wood.  Most brands of pruning paste contain a fungicide that will kill canker, silver leaf or other fungal diseases that would gain entry on an exposed cut.   Always try and prune on a clear dry day to minimise the risk of infection and always spray the blades of your secateurs and pruning saw with meths before you start a new tree so you don’t carry any diseases from one tree to another.

The little blade sharpener is a handy tool to give your secateurs a touch up before an afternoon of pruning.  Sharp secateurs make nice clean cuts and make the job faster.   You don’t sharpen the blades of the Silky saw because they’re impulse hardened.   You just clean the blades after use to remove any gunk from the teeth and dry well before storing.

So now you know the language and the equipment it’s time to get pruning.   So far we’ve covered pruning Fig trees, pruning Citrus trees , pruning nectarines, peaches and almonds and apples and pears.   In the coming weeks, we will be showing you how to prune, apricots, plums, berries and more so stay tuned.  Happy pruning.

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4 comments

  1. We have inherited about a dozen rather old heritage plum trees which are very overgrown so I’m keen to get in there and have a tidy up, however I have heard conflicting information about the best time of year to prune plums. Can you please advise what is the best time of year? (Spring? After fruiting?) Also there is a lot of dead wood amongst the live which I’ve marked for future reference. Is it okay to lop the dead bits off in winter? Thanks in anticipation of your reply.

    1. Wow Kerry, lucky you. If you’d said old peach and nectarine trees I’d say get the chainsaw, but plums are long lived and will respond well to a bit of careful renewal pruning. The good news is you don’t need to do a lot to them to keep them happy. The received wisdom is to prune plums just after fruiting when they are still in leaf, because during winter the spores of the silver leaf fungus that can attack plum trees are more prevalent / airborne. I wouldn’t prune in spring because the sap is rising and cuts won’t heal as well. I’ve pruned my plum trees in winter and I’ve just made sure I have the BacSeal pruning paste to hand and paint every cut as I make it to keep the greeblies out. It is easier to see the tree when the leaves are off.

    2. Oh, and we will tackle pruning plums on the blog in a couple of weeks but we’re doing stonefruit and pipfruit first. Main thing to remember if you want to tackle it now is remove dead wood, water shoots, overlaps and shorten branches back to buds. Refer to the citrus blog for photos of how to cut off whole limbs successfully.

      1. Excellent advise, thank you so much 🙂

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