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How to Trim Fruit Trees

Last updated : 24 February 2013

Trimming fruit trees is not that difficult, nor do you have to be an expert in order to do a nice job trimming your fruit trees.  All you really need are the right tools, and a basic understanding of what the tree needs, and what you need as the person who will harvest the fruit.

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Timing.  When is the best time to trim fruit trees?  Just about any time in the winter is good.  Early winter is probably better that way as spring arrives the tree knows where to make new buds.  If you trim really late in the winter the tree has to adjust bud production at the last minute.

Tools.  What tools do I need?  I’ll show you some photos.  How’s that?  I’ve got some favorite pruning tools that I use for all of my pruning needs.  I’ll display them on this page.

Lopping Shears

Lopping Shears

Long handle looping shears are a necessary tool for any gardener that does any kind of heavy pruning.  These are by-pass loppers meaning that the blades by pass each other as the cut is made.  By pass shears make nice clean cuts.  The other type of shear is an anvil shear where the blade presses the branch against an anvil in a crushing motion.  I don’t like anvil shears of any kind.  Think about scissors.  All scissors are by pass shears for a reason.  It would take an incredible amount of pressure to cut a piece of paper in scissors were made like anvil pruning shears.

Long Handle Lopping Shears

Long Handle Lopping Shears

The long handles give you all the leverage you need to cut heavy branches.

Folding Pruning Saw

Folding Pruning Saw

I love to have a folding pruning saw in my gardening tool box.  My preferred brand of pruning tools is Corona.  I’ve owned a lot of Corona pruning shears, loppers and folding saws.  I wish I had my Corona pruning saw back, but it got lost.  When I was in the landscaping business I loved that saw because it easily fit behind the seat of my pickup truck and was always there when I needed it.  Notice on these pruning saws they have a unique blade design.  They are designed to cut in both directions making them very quick and efficient to use.

By Pass Pruning Shears

By Pass Pruning Shears

These Corona pruning shears are my favorite pruning tool and I carry them with me daily.  I really like the Corona  BP 3160 for an all round pruning tool shear.  I’ve been using these shears for 40 years.  I use them for pruning just about everything and I also use them to make tens of thousands of cuttings.

Back to pruning fruit trees.

The first step is to stand back and in-vision what you want the tree to look like, taking into consideration that you must be able to reach all of the branches with nothing more than a step ladder in order to harvest the fruit when it is ripe.  Looking at the tree from a distance, draw an imaginary line around over the tree and picture exactly what shape you’d like the tree to be when you are done.

So one of your primary goals when pruning fruit trees is to open them up so they are not a mass of entwined branches but instead have plenty of space in and around the branches.  This is really important deep inside the canopy of the tree because any branches or foliage inside of the tree serves no useful purpose.

Remember the imaginary line that you drew over the tree.  Now it’s time to start cutting back any branches that exceed that dimension.  But as you do that you are not only cutting them back to the imaginary line but you are very selectively pruning them in such a way to create the correct amount of air space at the tips of the branches as well.  You have to open them up!  Let the sun shine in!   And let them feel the summer breeze!

As you prune the tree you will remove any branches that reach outside of that imaginary line.  But before we do that, let’s stick our head inside the tree and see what’s going on in there.  Keeping in mind that any small branches inside the tree really serve no useful purpose because they will never receive adequate sunlight to perform as they should.  Nor will they bear any amount of quality fruit for the same reason.

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So let’s start by first removing any really small branches inside the tree canopy that are likely to be sunlight starved.  While you’re in there, look for branches that touch, cross, or generally interfere with one another.  In most cases, one of those branches must be removed.

When you are pruning fruit trees there are several objectives that you are trying to achieve.  It’s important that fruit trees be open so all the fruit that is produced receives adequate sunlight and air circulation.  Both sunlight and air circulation are critical to the production of good fruit.  Both sunlight and air circulation work to create an environment that is good for quality fruit production.  The fruit needs sunlight to develop properly and the combination of sunlight and air flow work to stave off fungal diseases that can damage the fruit or it’s production.

There are two things to keep in mind when doing this.  One, you want sunlight and good air circulation around the ends of those branches, but you also want to reduce the amount of branches that can produce fruit.  Your goal is a supply of healthy fruit, not a ton of fruit that nobody really wants.  A fruit producing tree can only produce a limited amount of high quality fruit.  But the tree doesn’t really know that.  The only thing the tree knows how to do is make a flower on every bud that it can produce, then later produce fruit for each flower that it makes.

So by reducing the number of end branches that can flower and produce fruit you are actually helping the tree to make really nice fruit.  Professional fruit growers actually thin the the fruit on their trees in an effort to get good quality fruit.  After the trees bloom and as the fruit starts being produced, they actually remove about 10% of the fruit that the tree is trying to produce so the tree will put all of it’s energy into a smaller amount of fruit.

I won’t claim to be an expert on all kinds of fruit production because I most certainly am not.  But I’ve got friends in the apple business so I am familiar with what they do.  When the apples are about the size of a dime they spray the tree with something that knocks about 10% of the fruit off the tree.  But if for any reason they don’t get that spray on at the right time and it doesn’t work as they wanted it to, they have to go through the orchard and manually thin the trees.

So if you wonder why apples cost what they do, producing high quality fruit isn’t as simple as just planting some apple trees and raking in the money.

Let’s recap what I wrote.

1.  Keep your fruit trees low enough that you can reach the branches to harvest the fruit.

2.  Remove any and all small branches inside the tree, especially those that cross or compete with other branches.

3.  Open up the tree on the outside for good sun penetration and good air circulation.

4.  Reduce the amount of area where the tree produces fruit to reduce the amount of fruit that is produced.

Is there a right way and a wrong to make the cuts that need to be made?

The cuts should be smooth and clean, no frayed or ragged edges.  Don’t leave strands of hanging or peeled back bark.  Your pruning tools should be sharp and clean and of high quality.  The more you pay for pruning tools the better they work.  Cheap tools leave a cheap looking job.   Wipe them down with rubbing alcohol to clean your tools.  Don’t leaves short stubs.  Cut all the way back to a main branch.  If you leave short stubs the tree will make more, multiple branches on the stub that you leave, actually compounding the problem that you are trying to eliminate.

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That’s it!  Questions or comments?  Post them below.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Bill G says

    And remember that those small internal branches are a good source of cutting material. I use them to propagate my fig trees.

  2. VerJean Schindeldecker says

    Thanks for your information. I am wondering if you have
    any information on how to prune blackberry bushes. Mine
    are vining along a 5 foot fence and have very long shoots,
    or strands. I am sure they need to be trimmed but I am not
    sure how. Do you have any information on this ow where I
    can go to get it. I have googled this and not really
    sure how to do it.

    Thanks for your help.

    VerJean

  3. says

    Mike, you’re kidding – Corona?!?! What crap. We’ve had a few Corona tools and they are utter junk – break easily, get dull, the by-pass pruners were so wobbly they twisted and split the cuts rather than cut them. If you have a broken tool YOU have to PAY to ship it back to the factory – not the place you bought it – and then they will consider whether it’s broken and what it will cost to get it fixed. I can’t imagine recomending them. If you think they’re good, look into some really good ones. Ace makes good one, Sears carries some good ones, and I challenge you to find a better hand pruner than Felco.
    We have fruit trees and pruning them is a serious challenge. The problem with your recomendation is that if you cut back to the imaginary line, they will grow several feet OUTSIDE that line if you just cut back to it. You need to cut back to inside that line so when the tree grows it will reach your imaginary line. This usually meand cutting off all the long branches. Anyhow, virtually all of last year’s growth should be cut back by at least half – particularly if you’re working with semi- or dwarf trees, which I think a lot of home gardeners have planted.

    • Mike says

      Athena,
      I stand what I said about Corona tools. Been using them for years, and yes I have owned Felco shears. The only difference in Felco is the much higher price. I know they’re good shears, but I like Corona because I replace them often. I’m hard on shears. I’ve never broken a pair of Corona shear. I’ve dulled them using them to cut roots etc. that are dirty, but for making cuttings etc they do a great job.

    • herb says

      Athena….I don’t know how you actually feel but your mail to Mike sounds really rude. Using the word “crap” to describe someone’s favorite tool which has served them well over the years, well, I’ed take Mike’s advice over your simply becuse it sounds like you have an ax to grind.

  4. Haiyan says

    Mike,
    Thanks so much for the information because it is time for me to get ready for pruning my apples, pears, peaches, and grapes.
    I watched your vedeo about how to make grapes cuttings. Is it OK for me to stick the grapes into dirty when I prune it?
    Haiyan

  5. says

    Floricane: This is normally considered to be the fruit-producing cane and was a primocane in the previous growing season.
    Lateral shoot: The leafy, green growth that develops from the lateral buds. Lateral shoots grow quite rapidly when the main shoot (cane) is tipped.
    Node: The thickened portion of a shoot (cane) where the leaf petiole is attached and a bud is located.
    Primocane: Blackberry plants have a biennial growth habit. The first-year growth is a green shoot that matures into a woody-textured cane late in the fall.
    Primocane fruiting: Some blackberry varieties are genetically able to produce fruit on primocanes in the fall.
    Pruning: Remove portions of blackberry plants to help maintain size, shape, and productivity.
    Useful

  6. Donna says

    Mike,
    Great article, but when pruning any woody plant the cuts should by made all the way back to the branch collar, the ring around the base of the branch, not flush with the main stem. If the branch collar is left intact the tree will heel better. It is actually better to leave a small stump then cutting it flush against the branch.
    Donna

  7. says

    I have a thronless blackberry and I take the long canes and bend them to a bucket put soil in bucket 3/4 full then I stick the cane in that bucket of soil and lay a brick or heavy stone to hold the cane down, and keep it in there till you see new growth, this is how you can start new plants to sell. People love to hear about {Thronless} blacberries.

    • Mike says

      Delaine,
      You don’t say what zone you are in. Here in the north I’d pull the canes all the way to the ground and bury them. That keeps them out of the extreme cold over the winter. Plants root better with the more heat they have around the rooting zone.

    • Bob Fortner says

      Go to enoch’s berry farm.Order the roots .lot cheaper.cut the roots in half.1 per pot .they will pop up when the weather gets warm. Be ready to sell a month or so after that.I ordered 150.cost was 68 dollars shipping and all.It will pot out 300 pots. 5 dollars a pot.Or you can dig your own roots from what you have. But Enoch has a nice variety of the newest stuff out there.

      • Rob says

        Just remember that the newer varieties at Enoch’s are patented and a royalty should be paid to The University Of Ark. Enjoy

    • jim murray says

      Hello Delaine I live in Canada on Vancouver Island B.C. and blackberries grow wild everywhere and visitors are amazed and delighted until they get scratched by all the thornes. I woul like to plant some thornless ones for the fun and joy of it. Do you have any suggestions as to varieties and sources??? I would love to get started as our Spring has arrived.

  8. Dona Corley says

    Thanks for the info, didn’t you say one time, not to let peach trees to grow over 4 to 5 feet? Had my first fruit last year and was so good, just pruned them back to right at 4 1/2 feet couldn’t remember what you had said about them.

  9. says

    HI Mike,

    We have a Mugho Pine (Pinus mugo). It’s starting to get out of hand sizewize. When and how would I prune this type of bush?

    Thanks Mike.

  10. Alamody says

    Great insight, and helpful hints. We all treasure our plants, shrubs; and fruit trees – thank you very much for offering your great expertise.

  11. Tom Biesiada says

    Mike :I have trimmed a couple of apple trees that were growing at the back of my property that were way overgrown but after 4 yrs of hard trimming they produce almost nothing I have trimmed them like you have written and do the trimming in late feb or early march when I see the orchard men down the street do there trimming

    • Sherry from Idaho says

      Tom,
      This is the pruning schedule I use for my apple trees.
      Winter pruning (late fall to late winter) promotes growth by directing energy to growth buds at the expense of fruit buds.
      Summer pruning (from mid to late summer) reduces foliage and promotes the formation of fruit buds.
      I only trim in Winter if absolutely necessary and almost always have apples.
      Good luck!

  12. al says

    there was a big wild apple tree towards the back of my property. Lots and lots of small scabby apples each year. It looks now like the tree wasnt wild because after three years of pruning i get big beautiful apples. I.m not sure what kind of apple it is – red to yellow stripes on green and when ripe i have to pick right away – a few days later they are grainy. thanks for your help. Al

  13. Jerry says

    Is this true for citrus also? I have a declining orange tree which has out grown my reach, but was afraid to cut new growth off the top.

  14. Charline Jolly says

    Be careful when you are pruning small inner branches to avoid knocking off stubby short branches. Those are fruiting spurs, and you want to keep them!

  15. Anonymous says

    Hi Mike! I have 6 Satsuma trees that are almost 10 years old. After the first 3 to 4 years, the fruit was delicious from the limbs from the bottom of the trees to about 6ft up. From there on up the fruit looks like grapefruit and has notty places on them. The taste is horrible. Please tell me you know what causes this and how I might correct it.
    Thanks for you help. Beverly

  16. says

    Hi Mike, I have a Washington navel tree(orange), I’ve had it for many years, at first it produced large oranges but lately it’s produced small ones also the leaves have gotten kinda yellow. What do you recommend as far as fertilizing it. Thank-you in return.

    • Mike says

      Pete, fertilizer might help, but maybe the tree needs pruning or has other issues. I’d fertilize it as you would any citrus tree, but I don’t know exactly what amount of fertilizer to apply.

  17. terry says

    I have a 10 year old meyer lemon tree and I
    would cry if my husband would trim it.
    Every year I have a ton or two of great
    lemons. The tree does great without being trimmed
    and the more lemons I get the more I have to give
    to people. Apple trees may be different. Thanks

    • Mike says

      Terry,
      This falls into the category of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Doing nothing is working perfectly for you, so I’d stay the course.

  18. Kelly says

    A quick question, Just about everything I can find on pruning plum trees says to prune in the summer while the sap is flowing well to prevent “silver leaf” and other diseases. I have always thought, as you have stated to prune in the winter. What is the correct time, we have a Satsuma plum tree in the back yard approximately 4 years old.

    • Mike says

      Kelly, I honestly don’t know the answer to your question. But what I do know about gardening and plants is that there is never one hard fast rule for anything. There are usually many different ways to achieve the same desired result. Winter pruning is always the least stressful on the plant, but with that said myself and every other nursery person on the planet prune all year round, usually when we are walking by. So if you are more comfortable pruning in the summer, you certainly are not going to harm the tree. Not a very good answer I know, but it’s all I know about this issue.

  19. Sandy B says

    As a new member of Mike’s Backyard Growers, I am so excited about Spring… I have Butterflies in my tummy. I am filling myself full of any information I can get from Mike and his followers. Thank you so much eveyone.

  20. Rich Glaser says

    Hi Mike

    I have four apples trees that i planted over the last ten years. I have never gotten a aplle off any of them. all of my other fruit trees product fruit like crazy, Cherry Pear Peach plums. What am I doing Wrong. I know that there suppose to cross polinate with each other. Help

    • Mike says

      Rich,
      I am not an expert in the area of apple production, especially the cross pollination part. I’d have to research that. But my contention is that plants that produce flowers then fruit, that’s really only thing they need to do. So if the tree is happy and healthy where it’s at, then it should flower and you should be fruit. So the cross pollination thing could be your problem. If you have trees near by that the trees can cross pollinate with and or each other, that should happen automatically. Hopefully someone who knows more than I do will chime in here.

  21. Viki Steiner says

    Mike,
    Still thinking about ordering your backyard growing system, but I just turned 70 and don’t have the energy I used to. I have cut down the work getting my vegetable gardens going this year by running my chickens in my garden. They have weeded it better than I ever could have so it should be easy to get ready to plant when the time comes. Thanks for the advice on pruning fruit trees. I have a few cherry trees that I haven’t pruned in several years. Guess it is time to get busy.

  22. Bob Fortner says

    Rabbits ??? Im having a heck of a time with rabbits this winter.they are eating down a lot of my thornless blackberry canes that will make berries this spring.Any ideas ?? The thorny canes they leave alone ,it is the newer varieties of the thornless they go after.

  23. says

    Nice and informative post indeed! I am grateful to you that you have found time to download some images of some of the mostly used tools used for tree lopping and trimming. But I am not sure what will you trim trees with thorns?

  24. Anonymous says

    Your article is about tools, not really much on actual pruning or trimming. Try again! Good luck. Ron B.

    • Genaro says

      read the article again…. you cant prune with your hands so… the tools are as important as the tree and the person in between.
      thanks!

  25. bob moore says

    Mike I Have about 30 high bush blueberry plants,I feed them with hollytone plenty of pine needles,and oak leaves for mulch,I was wondering the best shoots to propagate from .Some of the bushes are in their 4th year. Assorted varieties.I hopefully should get a good yield this year,before the birds get ‘Em thanks Bob

    • Mike says

      Bob, the best shoots for propagation would be the softwood that will appear this spring. Once the plants start to make leaves in the spring wait about 6 weeks. After six weeks the plants should have about 6″ to 8″ of new growth on them and just about that time that new growth begins to harden off just enough that it can stand on it’s own and serve as a softwood cutting for rooting. Use this method. http://www.freeplants.com/homemade-plant-propagation.htm

  26. Bill says

    Mike is correct about the Corona brand. I have used them for years.
    Athena, most tools, especially “edged” tools require maintenance-sharpening, cleaning, and oiling is a good start. Do you ever have to sharpen your kitchen knives? We have to, and it makes a big difference in how they perform. If you use a pruning saw, it will benefit from being resharpened if you are using an old fashioned one with the fixed in place blade. Many of the newer ones are built to easily swap the dull blade for a new factory supplied blade. It is very frustrating to use a dull tool.
    Felco has a good reputation also. Remember, the basic law of economics: you get what you pay for.

  27. Genaro says

    Hi Mike and Friends.
    I had a lot of work this winter pruning fruit trees.
    I really like the way you put it.
    It takes some common sense… and a couple of years of practice… you could really read tons of pruning advice, but it wont do much until you get your hands dirty!
    Thanks again Mike
    I’ll be sharing your article with my friends.

  28. Andy says

    I am in the market to buy my first pair of pruning shears;but confused, should I go to Ace or sears or corona or felco or fiskar. can you make it simple.

  29. ApacheMike says

    Hello Mike and Friends,
    Purchasing your pruning shears with consideration to practicality and your passion. Buy the best you can afford, I went through many cheap commercial ones before I settled with Corona, they included a holster and I pack them around all day, just to clip something along the way. Let me also include this tip; the sharp blade should be closest to the trunk of the tree, so as to leave the cleanest cut possible, and aiding in the best healing.

  30. Shelby G. says

    Hi Mike!
    I have a pretty little 2-3 year old satsuma tree in my backyard. Come springtime, it starts producing little clusters of green shoots. For the most part, they seem to be growing straight up and the leaves on them are generally curly and ugly looking. They mostly congregate around the tips of the main branches, but single ones pop up all along the length of the branch. Do these all need to be trimmed off? Or do I select just a few to leave on?
    Thanks for all the helpful tips!
    Shelby

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