Fruit trees should be pruned every year in order to develop a strong tree structure, provide for light penetration, control the tree size, and to remove damaged wood. This segment demonstrates these principles.

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Pruning Fruit Trees

Fruit trees should be pruned every year in order to develop a strong tree structure, provide for light penetration, control the tree size, and to remove damaged wood. This segment demonstrates these principles.

A lot of us inherit fruit trees, or we may plant fruit trees so that we can enjoy fruit down the road. But they do require a little bit of commitment on the part of the gardener. We need to prune them annually. We usually prune them when we first get them, to get them started in shaping up the way we want them to go. But, we also need to continue to train them, and allow a lot of sunlight into the plant from year to year. Occasionally we may inherit a property or have a tree that has gotten away from us, and we need to bring it back into control.

A good time to prune is when the plant is dormant. It’s easier to see the structure of your plant such as rubbing branches, or broken branches. Or you may have branches that may have a disease that need to be pruned out.

We can also do some summer pruning, especially sucker growth or branches that are growing straight up through the plant that’s reducing sunlight. We can take those types of branches out anytime during the season. One theory is to let the plant flower and see where the fruit is developing on the tree, and then prune accordingly. Then, during the dormant period, you’re not pruning out live wood that would produce some good quality fruit.

This is an example of a flower bud, which you’ll probably want to keep, so that you can have some fruit. And, these are leaf buds ,which are important as well. If this was an example of a bad crotch angle, or we had some other reason to prune that, we can make sure that we keep the flower bud and remove the leaf portion of the plant. Just make a quarter-inch cut above the outward bud. That will heal over and be a nice, healthy pruning cut.

One of the first steps you can look for are broken limbs, diseased, or unhealthy looking branches. This particular branch was broken during the winter. It’s a good decision to remove it.

When we look at pruning a tree, we should walk around the tree and get a good idea of what the tree should look like. One of the key points is to provide open areas so that sunlight gets into the tree. This particular branch is shading the lower branch. By removing it, we’ll allow a lot more sunlight getting down into the canopy and the rest of the tree. Therefore, I’ve made the decision to remove this branch. It’s a good sized branch, and it has some weight. You can’t just cut it off at the connection because it may tear the bark, and it may be awkward for cutting. In order to remove it, depending on the size of the branch, you may want to make a cut partway through the bottom of the branch. That will keep the bark from tearing. Then, you can cut the rest of it off just slightly past the first cut.

Now, we’ll make our final cut, and it needs to be outside the branch collar. If you look on trees, especially apple trees, you’ll see the branch collar which is a ridge of cells. You want to cut right outside of it. A few years back we used to think that we needed to make a flush cut. But, it made a much larger opening, and it took a lot longer for the plant to seal off because there weren’t good cells to close over the wound. Now we know that we need to cut outside that branch collar. It leaves just a little bit of what we might call a stub, but it’s a better way for the plant to seal over.

We want to remove any branches that are crossing over another one, or rubbing each other. It’s a good decision to remove those branches so that the plant is open to more air and sunlight.

On our fruit trees, we like to have the branches going at a 90 degree angle. We often don’t get to that point, but 60 to 80 degree angles are OK. Anything going straight up is going to provide shade for the lower canopy of the plant. So those are usually good indicators of branches that we may want to take off.

One of the nice things about pruning trees annually, is that you can come back the next year and make new decisions. You may want to keep one of these for a year, and then remove it the next year. Right now we have three branches shading the canopy, so we’ll take off at least one of those branches for this year.

Every time you take a branch off you can re-evaluate. You may want to get down and take a look around the tree, or you may have someone helping you. For this year, I’ve decided to leave these two branches that are going straight up. But, I’m going to trim the top off of them. Remember to always cut back to a side branch, so that the growth can be targeted in that direction. Then, next year you can come back and remove some more, or re-evaluate for the upcoming years.

On an apple tree, you’ll typically take out about a third of the growth each year. If you prune out more, you’ll have a lot of sucker growth, or water sprouts. That just means that you’ll have to go back and do some more pruning later on. Typically, on an apple tree, you’ll take off about a third each year to open it up and get sunlight to the plant. The plant can handle that, and you’ll have plenty of fruiting branches to get a good harvest of fruit.

Some people are planting dwarf type fruit trees. That will eliminate the need for ladders. If you do have a larger tree where you need to get up in there, you’ll want to make sure that it’s safe. Make sure you have a ladder that has a good footing. In order to prevent accidents when pruning, it would be a good idea to have a spotter to hold the ladder. Ideally, you may want to plant different types of fruit trees that are shorter and easier to maintain. You can also use equipment such as pole pruners that allow you to stand on the ground and still trim branches that are hard to reach.

It’s not uncommon to find suckers or water sprouts coming up from tissues, and you may want to remove them. You can remove them anytime during the year. Cut them as close to the plant tissue as possible.

You may come across a branch that has broken off or was damaged. This is an example of where you’ll need to prune it back to a growing point so that plant can seal over. Right now, the branch can attract disease and insects, and could cause problems to your plant later on.

It’s not uncommon to have a situation where branches are rubbing. These two trunks are trying to grow together. There just isn’t a lot of space there. This crotch angle isn’t very good. As the tree continues to grow and get fruit on there, there will be a lot of weight and stress and will eventually fail or split open. In this situation, you’ll need to remove the whole branch, which will take several steps. First, in order to take the weight off the branch, you’ll need to cut it higher and remove most of the branch. Then, you can come down and make the final cut so that the plant can seal over.

It needs to be cut down here at the branch collar. In this situation, it’s a little difficult to identify, but try to make a small cut, so that the plant can seal over. We don’t like to see a large hole where the inside has signs of decay, but it’s not uncommon. As the tree ages, you’ll often see signs of decay. It’s just an indicator that we may need to think about expanding our orchard and planting a new tree to for future harvests when this one is no longer producing.

This is an example of encroachment – with too much shade. This tree on this side has outgrown this other branch, and is shading these lower branches. The branch has died, and needs to be removed to make this tree healthy again. This is why we need to prune on an annual basis – to prevent a shading situation. We’ve taken the large weight off of the branch. Now, we’ll come back a make a cut at the branch collar so that it will seal over.

These are some branches that were cut that weren’t quite into that branch collar area. You’ll see that there is a small dead stub that hasn’t sealed over very well. We can come back and prune it to make it seal over better. And that’s what I want to do here – to make that cut correctly so that it seals over.

On this particular apple tree, we only want to take off about one-third. That’s pretty common. We had a few dead branches, so it may look like we took off a little bit more than that. The only way that I can visualize that, is to get a feel for what the tree looked like before I started. Then, I pile up the branches. When it looks like I have about one-third of it taken off, I’ll stop pruning for this year.

Remember, next year is a new season, and I can go back and do some more pruning. If we were to take off a half or more, that would stimulate a lot of new plant growth which would require more pruning the following year. So, ideally, if we can keep in that one-third range, it keeps the tree on an even keel with it’s food resources. We can then have a nice food crop from year to year.

We do need to remove the branches that we’ve pruned as part of keeping the sanitation up in the orchard. You can pile it up and take it to a landfill, transfer station, or a community gathering place. Or, you may be able to burn them. It’s important to remove the branches to get rid of disease potential in the orchard.

This feature story prepared with Gregg Eyestone, Kansas State University Research and Extension Horticulture Agent, Riley County. For more information, visit your local county extension office or visit our website at


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