Proper pruning means healthier, more productive fruit trees

Prune fruit trees when you plant them by establishing a vigorous leader and a number of well-spaced side limbs.

Tips for pruning your backyard fruit trees

Even though snow is still covering the ground and temperatures are below freezing, early March is an excellent time to prune your fruit trees. This timing is late enough to prevent cold injury to the wood and yet early enough to still be dormant. Following a few key tips will result in healthier and more productive trees for years to come.

The first and most important step is to use clean and sharp pruning tools. A 10% Clorox solution does a good job of disinfecting the cutting blades. Tools should be sharp to insure a clean and smooth cut and proper tissue healing. Scissor types of hand pruners or loppers are recommended for the best cutting and smaller limb removal. Tree paints and wound compounds are not necessary. For larger limbs, chain saws will be required. Make cuts back to within a half inch of the main trunk or side limb.

Three pruning methods based on the type of fruit tree

All fruit trees are not created equal when it comes to pruning methods. There are three basic types of pruning depending on the type of fruit tree: open center, central leader and modified central leader. It is important to start training your fruit trees to the appropriate method once they are first planted. During the first few years, each fruit tree will be trained to one of these methods of pruning. As they get older, the main structure will be set and over the bearing years, all the fruit trees will be pruned to remove weak, crossing, dead and diseased limbs. In general, pruning is needed on an annual basis to maintain good health and invigorate to produce more fruit.

The most common training method is the “open center” system. This system is used for tart cherries, plums, apricots and peaches. With the open center system, the main leader is removed after a few years and the structure is developed with four to five main limbs that grow out and up, leaving an open area for the fruit to grow and ripen each year. As these trees mature, the main pruning focuses on removing branches from the center of the tree and making thinning cuts from the main limbs to maximize sunlight and air flow.

The “central leader” system features a leader that is not removed and side branches develop along its entire length. This system is used for sweet cherries and pears. These trees have a Christmas tree shape: wider at the bottom, narrower at the top. As these trees mature, maintenance pruning will include removing weak and diseased limbs and those crossing other limbs. In addition, older limbs are removed to encourage younger and more vigorous limbs to maximize sunlight and fruit production. The leader can be tipped if it gets too tall to manage without affecting the rest of the tree.

Finally, the “modified central leader” system is a hybrid of the central leader and open center trees. Apple trees are trained to this system, especially those grown on dwarfing rootstocks. With this system, the trees develop a group of 3 to 4 side limbs (knee to waist high) off a strong leader during the first few years, and then within a couple more years, develop a second group of 3 to 4 limbs (head high and above). Once developed, maintenance pruning will include removing weak, diseased, dead, and crossing limbs. In addition, older limbs are removed to encourage younger and more productive limbs. Once the higher group of limbs is established, the leader can be tipped back.

Pruning fruit trees in your backyard should not be a mystery. Contact your local MSUE Office for more information related to growing fruit trees.