Many home gardeners are well-versed in growing plots full of juicy tomatoes, versatile squashes, and savory herbs. Often we get a little more hesitant when considering adding some fruit trees to our repertoire.
There is something about the permanent nature of a tree and the unknown process of where and when to prune that seems to throw off even an experienced green thumb! Surprisingly, when it comes right down to it, pruning fruit trees is a pretty straight forward process and once you know the basics you will have healthy, thriving, and abundant fruit trees in no time at all.
When to Prune
The best time to prune your fruit trees is when the tree itself is dormant and all of the leaves have fallen away. This is the best time for several reasons – the most basic reason is that it is simply easier to see what you are doing and exactly where you are cutting when there are no leaves to obstruct your view, and the removal of the dormant buds will send all of the growing energy and nutrition to the buds that remain giving them the best opportunity to grow healthy and strong.
Really the only time that you would want to prune your fruit trees during the summer growing season is to slow the growth of trees that are over vigorous.
What to Prune
Branches that are growing essentially vertically or downward past approximately 90 degrees should be pruned back. The vertical branches growing upward will produce little to no fruits, and the low hanging branches will begin to only produce small, and very little fruit over time. The optimal growing branches for excellent quality fruit will grow at an approximate angle of 45-60 degrees. Additionally, you should prune back any branches or growth that is dead, diseased, or damaged.
In order to encourage new and vigorous growth, be fairly aggressive with proper pruning techniques. Keep in mind that new growth happens at the cuts so the more buds that are removed the more robust the new growth will be. A good rule of thumb is that new fruit trees will require assertive pruning for the first three years and will produce very little high quality fruit. However, it is the pruning that develops the growth potential in the young trees that will carry them into hearty and healthy fruit bearing trees for many years to come. One year I was too buys and skipped this step. I lost two of my 4 main branches in a wind storm, due to the heavy wait of the fruit. Never again, will I not prune.
Finally, an additional benefit to annual pruning is that fruit trees who enjoy good air circulation and sunlight are less prone to diseases and pests that can damage the tree and ruin the harvest.