Pruning Fruit Trees

In order to be productive, fruit trees need to be pruned each year…yes, every year.  In fact, one of the most common problems that we encounter is homeowners with trees that have been unpruned for a year, or two, or three and as a result the tree is a tangled mess of branches here and there to the point it’s hard to distinguish it from a tumbleweed.


Annual pruning is especially important for young trees to develop a low-to-the-ground fruiting structure.  Waiting until the tree starts to bear to prune will result in most, if not all, of the fruit being produced out of reach, and who wants to climb a ladder to pick the fruit? Thus, start right away, in the first year of growth.


The best timing for fruit tree pruning is late winter, while the tree is leafless and flaws can be easily seen.  From a wound closure standpoint, this is desirable as well, as April brings good conditions for recovery.


Generally, while stone fruits such as cherry and peach grow best with an open center arrangement, and pome fruits like apple and pear with a strong central leader system, the following guidelines apply to all fruit trees:

black knot john gentry

  1. Remove all dead or broken branches.
  2. Remove all diseased or the diseased parts of branches.
  3. Remove branches that are growing mostly vertically aka “watersprouts”.
  4. Remove branches arising from the base of the tree aka “suckers”.
  5. Remove competition between branches; if two branches are closer than 6 inches apart, remove the weaker of the two.
  6. Eliminate V branching. Strong branch attachments are 45 degrees, not 20 degrees.
  7. Remove drooping branches, and parts of others that touch the ground.
  8. Remove branches that grow towards the center of the tree.


After all of these undesirable branches have been removed, the pruning “dose” is complete.  It’s much better to remove flaws in late winter and again in early to mid-summer than a massive removal effort at any time of the year.


One final thought to keep in mind:  A fruit tree should be open, not closed like a shade tree.  Ideally, it should be easy to toss a baseball through the tree canopy and not hit a branch.

John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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