Fruit Tree Pruning Instructions:
Basic & Advanced

Following the fruit tree pruning instructions on this page will allow your trees to establish themselves as fruitful and attractive additions to your garden.

Note that the advice on this page is general in nature. Refinements by fruit can be found in our individual Fruit Growing Guides.

Why Fruit Tree Pruning Is Important

Keeping your fruit trees properly pruned is important for several reasons, including:

  • Increasing fruit production
  • Preventing disease
  • Prevent easy branch breaking from storms or heavy fruit
  • Reduce pruning needs in future years (if young trees are pruned effectively)
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When to Prune Fruit Trees

Stone fruits such as plums, cherries, peaches and apricots that are up to two or three years old will need slightly later pruning in the spring. You should wait to prune older plants until the summer to discourage diseases like silver leaf infection.

Fruit trees that are trained into espaliers, cordons, fans or other styles (more on this below) also need to be pruned in the summer. Also, wait to prune them until they begin growing to help reduce their growth rate. This is important as the aim is to restrict their available space.

For all fruit trees, be sure to cut out any branches that are diseased or overcrowded so your fruit will all have enough sun to ripen later in the year.

Finally, check your tree’s fruiting habits and prune accordingly. Some trees bear fruit on branches that are year-old shoots whilst others need older wood. If your tree’s fruit requires older wood, be sure to leave the older wood in place!

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Basic Fruit Tree Pruning Instructions

image placeholder Espaliered Pear Tree

In the early years of your fruit tree’s growth you’ll be completing formative pruning to create the final shape you are aiming for. You may be doing this to increase fruitfulness or to create forms such as espaliers (see image to the right), fans (like espaliers, except branches grow out from the base to create a fan shape) or stepovers (branches are lowered to extend out horizontally from the base and fastened to a trellis.

If you don’t prune your tree each year (or don’t prune it enough), over time overcrowding will reduce available light to ripen fruit. You’re also putting trees at risk of diseases.

But over-pruning is also easy to do and can put your fruit trees at equal risk.

Over-pruning causes desperate growth as your tree struggles to reestablish itself. In this case, your tree must concentrate energy on growing new shoots that may not develop buds for fruit.

The Right Tools

Fiskars PowerGear 27 Inch Bypass Lopper

Using the right techniques starts with having the right tools…

  • Growing trees: Invest in...

All tools need to be sharp and clean to reduce the chance of diseases and viruses.

There are three basic types of pruning cut.

  1. Pinching – removing the tip of the plant while it’s still young
  2. Heading or shortening – removing a section of shoot or branch
  3. Thinning – removing a whole shoot or branch section

To choose the right cut, study your tree and look for overcrowded, dead or diseased stems…

  • Cutting shoots that come out of branches - always cut just above a bud. Make the cut at an angle of 45 degrees sloping away from the bud.
  • Removing a whole branch - make the cut just after the branch collar. This is the ridged section where it attaches to the main trunk. Cutting in this location when removing a branch will allow the tree heal quicker and reduce diseases.

If the branch is too thick to cut with shears, use these steps to remove it with a pruning saw. It’s important not to tear the tree bark, and this technique prevents that from happening:

  1. Make your first cut about 12 inches (30 cm) away from the main tree trunk. First saw the underside of the branch working at a right angle. Saw into about a third of the branch’s thickness.
  2. Begin to saw the branch from above. Position the saw slightly to the outer side of the first cut. Saw through the whole branch. If the bark begins to tear as you saw, the tearing bark will stop at your earlier cut.
  3. Use the saw to make a final cut of the remaining branch. Don’t prune too near to the branch collar.
  4. The ridge that’s left will heal over a short time.

To gain a better understanding, take a look at the following videos...

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Fruit Tree Pruning Videos - Years One Through Four

If you're just starting out, review this entire section. Otherwise, click the year of your fruit tree to jump to that subsection...

Year One

There is no video for one year old pruning due to its simplicity. Here's what you need to know when pruning your one year old fruit trees:

  • If the nursery didn't do it for you, remove all branches (also called "scaffold limbs") with narrow "crotch" angles (angle between the main stem and the branch are less than 50 degrees)
  • For your remaining scaffold limbs, prune them back to about 1/2 of their original length. This will ensure that enough nutrients get to the centeral leader (main stem) while the plant is young (note: some gardeners leave very short scaffolds in place if they're well-positioned and have a good crotch angle)
  • Cut back the central leader to a height between 24 and 40 inches (61 and 102 cm), keeping in mind that:
    • The lowest scaffold limb should be about 27 inches (69 cm) above the ground for apples and 23 inches (58 cm) for all other fruit trees (3 inches/7.6 cm lower or higher is okay)
  • Throughout the first year, remove all shoots that appear below the lowest scaffold limb
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Year Two

In the first video, Felix reviews how to prune a 2 year old stone fruit tree (peach, plum, etc.)...

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Year 3

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Year 4

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Advanced Fruit Tree Pruning Instructions

If you’re a confident gardener or an ambitious beginner, you may want to try a more advanced pruning and training approach. Before applying advanced pruning techniques, you’ll need to pick the shape and location in advance as advanced tree forms are not easily achieved on established fruit trees.

Four issues should be considered for advanced pruning:

  1. How much space do you have, and is your tree near a supporting structure?
  2. How vigorous is the variety you hope to grow?
  3. Be realistic about how much time you want to invest in this gardening project.
  4. Is your tree vigorously growing but producing a less-than-ideal volume of fruit?

1. How much space do you have, and is your tree near a supporting structure?

Fruit will be more plentiful on branches that grow horizontally which is why espaliers and cordons are popular.

For instance, if you have a wall that is south facing you can create a compact tree that will give you lots of fruit for the small amount of space it takes up. By training the branches along the wall in an espalier, you’re ensuring the fruit gets the maximum sunlight each day to help it grow.

Forms suitable for growing against walls are:

  • Espaliers - trained horizontally along wires fixed to a wall or fence
  • Fans - branches trained against a wall or fence to create a fan shape

Even if you don’t have a suitable wall or fence to achieve this effect, increasing the number of horizontal, lateral branches should encourage your crops to yield more fruit.

If you’re restricted for space you may want to create one of the following:

  • Dwarf pyramid - free standing with growth coming from the trunk and pruning to shape into a pyramid.
  • Half-standard - removing branches 3 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5m) above the ground and pruning remaining branches into a ball shaped clump.
  • Spindlebush - no taller than 7 ft (2.20m) pruned so that only branches growing at wider angles (55 to 90 degrees) are left.
  • Cordon - trees that have been restricted to a single stem. This method is used to grow lots of fruit in a very small area.

Each shape will use the same basic pruning techniques that need to be applied on a regular basis. If trees are left untended, they will revert to a full tree.

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2. How vigorous is the variety you hope to grow?

Planting a quick-growing variety that is on rootstock to create a large tree will mean lots of work. You’ll need to keep an eye on your trees. Tying branches in and pruning them into the correct shape will need doing every few weeks in the early years of growth.

If you’re growing a dwarf fruit tree and you’re not creating an advanced structure, pruning can be a once-a-year job.

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3. Be realistic about how much time you want to invest in this gardening project.

Creating an advanced structure can be a great center piece in your garden. It’s also likely to give you lots of fruit if done properly.

However, it’s a big time commitment from the start, including the winter. Pruning and tying in needs doing when growth is young, before the plant gets woody. You’ll also need to watch out for changes in weather and temperature.

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4. Is your tree vigorously growing but producing a less-than-ideal volume of fruit?

Additional Advice

For additional advanced instruction, click here to check out North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service's page on Training & Pruning Fruit Trees.

Consider pruning your tree's roots. You can only do this when the plant is dormant and buds have not begun to form:

  1. Mark a circle around the tree just inside the spread of the outer branches.
  2. Dig a trench following the circle that is about a spade width and 24 inches (60 cm deep).
  3. Use a garden fork to loosen the soil away from the roots and cut the woody roots using your pruning saw.
  4. Leave any thinner, fibrous roots, then refill the trench with the soil you removed mixed with an organic mulch.
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