Gardening Tips: Pruning Fruit Trees

— Written By and last updated by Chrissy Poole

In last week’s article, I discussed pruning strategies for grapevines. As a follow up, this week I’d like to discuss pruning strategies for fruit trees. As with grapevines, how a fruit tree is pruned helps determine the amount of fruit produced each year. Despite the importance of pruning, many gardeners are uncertain when and how to prune.
For fruit trees, your pruning strategy will depend on what type of tree you have. Most free trees, including apples, pears, plums, and cherries can be pruned using what is called a central leader system. Peaches are better suited to an open center pruning system.
In the central leader system, a tree is pruned so that it has one central trunk, with branches arranged in a shelf-like manner along the trunk. Looking at the tree from the ground, an ideally pruned tree would have 4 branches that attach to the trunk roughly 2 feet from the ground. These 4 will be spaced evenly around the trunk, such that one is essentially pointing in each compass direction. Every 18-24 up the trunk there will be another layer of 4 branches, evenly spaced around the trunk of the tree. Ideally each layer will be rotated slightly such that the branches in a higher level do not sit directly over those below them, thus shading them. A mature tree will have 4-5 of these levels, meaning somewhere around 16-20 main branches. Of course there will be many smaller side branches that originate from each main branch.
In order to get this desired form, trees need to be pruned pretty intensely during the first ten years of their lives. I realize that for many reading this article, those ten years have long passed. Still, there are some things we can do to try to get our trees to resemble this ideal form as much as possible. First try to determine if the tree has any established levels. If it seems as though a majority of branches follow the desired pattern, you can begin your pruning by removing extraneous branches. By this I mean those that are attached to the trunk between levels, or weak branches where there are more than 4 per level. Next look at the angle of the branches relative to the main trunk. Ideally the angle of all branches will be somewhere between 45 and 60 degrees relative to the trunk, but many branches when young will grow straight upward if left alone. Remove any upright branches, as these rarely bear fruit and take up a lot of energy. Next look for branches that cross, rub against, or shade one another. Wherever these occur, remove the weaker of the two branches completely. Finally, cut the very tip off of each main branch. Remove just an inch or two on strong branches, but cut back up to a foot on weaker sparse branches to encourage new growth.
When pruning peaches, many of the same strategies hold. You’ll want to remove branches that are growing too vertically, as well as those that are crossing or rubbing one another. However, the desired shape of the tree is much different. Peaches bear the most fruit when pruned to an open center, meaning at a young age the trunk of the tree is cut off, leaving it’s lowest branches to form the shape of a vase. The open center allows the sun to hit the fruit at an optimal angle. As such it is particularly important when pruning peach trees to remove any branches that creep into the center of the tree and compromise its openness.
For those who have fruit trees, you’ll want to prune anytime in the next six weeks or so. For more detailed pruning instructions, with illustrations, visit www.ces.ncsu.edu/lawn-and-garden-publications.
Matthew Stevens is the horticulture extension agent for Halifax County Cooperative Extension. If you have any questions about this article or other aspects of your home gardening, please contact Matthew at 583-5161 or matt_stevens@ncsu.edu.