01 November, 2019

Introduction To Pruning a Fruit Tree

One of the concepts I use in my pruning is to acknowledge each tree has its own way of looking and I try very hard to shape the tree without fighting with it. In no case of pruning should you take more than 1/3 of the tree. That excessive pruning will damage the tree more than needs be and will cut out some of your production from the tree in the following summer. Be conscious at all times that you are dealing with a living plant, some of which will live longer than you if well cared for.

Do not move rapidly. This is not a race. I am often meditating a bit while I am cutting. I'd like to entertain the idea that the tree will cooperate with me if I take what I need to take from a consciousness of helping the tree rather than using a chain saw and whacking off major branches.

I did an orchard rehab job in Highland Park area of LA several decades ago. These trees were planted by an old man and when he died were cared for by several unconscious people without an ounce of horticultural knowledge and they were a mess. It took four years for the orchard to look like it should have looked and was finally producing tons of fruit. I saved all but three trees and the first two years, I hauled a truckload of branches out. The third year, we did very little to the trees. I wish that orchard still existed, but it was torn out to build more housing. In the end, it was a magical place to visit.

I approach the tree, reading the branches, looking for what I must remove first; I am not in a hurry.

Look at the tree as it is now .
Pause to deliberate (what does the tree want?).
Make note of the branches you believe need to come out (from the reasons below).
Remove Dead, Dying, Diseased or Crossing branches.
Pause again to deliberate.
Shape the tree to the shape that benefits the tree paying attention to its fruiting habits.

First off, Dead and dying branches – these are entrance points for insects and diseases.
Secondly, Crossing branches, which will hit against one another, abrading their bark and exposing the cambium and the wood, again an entrance point for insects and diseases.
Third, any sprouts coming from the rootstock, these compete with the tree for nutrients and might eventually actually overtake and kill the tree you were caring for.
Finally, there might need to be some further pruning to shape

You will find that heavy pruning encourages the formation of vegetative growth at the expense of fruiting wood, which of course, you do not want. Light pruning, on the other hand, encourages heavy fruit set which results in smaller fruit of poorer quality and possible broken branches. Since home growers must also keep trees to manageable sizes, strive for a balance between heavy pruning and renewing fruiting wood. In order to achieve this, you should know where your tree bears its fruit. See hand out below.

Almost all instructions, including organic instructions, on winter pruning would have you spray horticultural oil on the tree to eliminate any harmful insects on the tree. Horticultural oil is one of the most prized organic materials for combating harmful insects. The last time I used it, I had pruned a lemon tree – as with all citrus, there isn't much of a “spray window” when the tree is "dormant." So I pruned it, sprayed it and was packing up my kit, when a swarm of bees took to the tree. Now, like most organic materials, this oil kills every insect and here I was, watching these wonderful pollinators flying right into my freshly sprayed tree. I tried to spray the tree with water, but it's OIL, right? A lot of good that did. I have never sprayed horticultural oil since. In fact, I've not sprayed a thing in my garden or on my trees since.

A Few Resources

If you can deal with a local nursery, that's best – you want to pick your stock from looking at it with your own eyes. However, a lot of the cool stuff, you have to get from nurseries beyond Southern California. Here are some I like for for different reasons:

Trees of Antiquity, www.treesofantiquity.com – I am listing them first because I owe it to them. When The Learning Garden was first getting under way, one of their staff spent a long time with me on the phone and helped me choose the trees. I had never heard of Dorsett Golden and we got five of them on his recommendation. It was worth it. I have found them beyond knowledgeable and helpful.

Raintree Nursery, raintreenursery.com – a company too far North to have much in our range, but they are the ones that I have found reliable to ship my rootstocks here in time to have them just after the California Rare Fruit Tree Growers annual grafting and budding class. Their catalog is a dream to read, but we can't grow nearly half of it.

Dave Wilson Nursery, www.davewilson.com – a local company with a hitch – they are not a retail company, dealing only in wholesale. Their catalog is probably the best one for Los Angeles. Find what you want there and go to your local retail nursery – many of them will order it for you and you can pick it up near home. They promoted a plan in the early 2000's of putting four different fruit trees in the same hole. I don't know how they fared outside of my Venice area, but I never saw one of these experimental plantings near here that was worth the effort.

UC Backyard Orchard, homeorchard.ucanr.edu – Is an excellent site to check into every so often. They publish the Home Orchard book that figured heavily in putting together my presentations. I am ecstatic that they did such a good job with that book!

CA Rare Fruit Growers crfg.org – A group of amateurs that know their stuff! They can answer almost any question about fruit trees and, because they are local, they know the weather. Their website is loaded with wonderful data and is authoritative. I encourage you to look into this organization for like-minded people!

Essentials for Fruit Tree Pruning

Fruiting Characteristics of Common Fruit Trees

Type of Tree
Location of Fruiting Buds

Age of bearing

Amount of Pruning
Long Branches Spurs or Short Branches
Laterally Terminally Laterally Terminally


Major 8- 10 yrs. Moderate
Apricot Minor


3 years Heavy
Fig Major


1 yr & new shoots Various
Peach/Nectarine Major


1-2 yrs Heavy
Pear, Asian Minor Very minor

Major 6-8 yrs Moderate to heavy
Pear, European Minor Minor

Major 8-10 yrs Moderate
Persimmon Major Major Minor Minor New shoots at the tip of 1 yr branches Light (thinning)
Plum, European Minor


6-8 yrs Moderate
Plum, Japanese Minor


6-8 yrs Heavy
Pomegranate Minor


Short new shoots Moderate
Quince Major Minor

New shoots Light (thinning)

Tools For Pruning

hand held pruners pole saw
loppers sharpener
saw(s) pruning knife 
Pruning and Pruning Cuts

First, prune off any damaged or broken branches. Take them back as far as you can.

Secondly, prune off what we call 'crossing branches.' These are branches that come through the center of the tree, crossing from one side to the opposite, or are branches that are parallel and close enough to be touching other branches. They can abrade the branches they touch when moved by wind and that wound can be an entrance point for insects or other pests. These must come out; take them back as far as you can.

Thirdly, do some pruning to shape the tree. Part of 'shaping' for fruit trees is to limit their height. I know it will somewhat lessen your fruit crop, but any apple tree humming along at full production, will inundate you with way too many apples. A little off the top so you can easily harvest from the tree without fancy footwork or ludicrous convolutions will not be missed – the ease with which it can be picked will gladden your heart. And save your back.

Always use clean pruners – if you have pruned a tree that even might have a disease, or if you have pruned a tree from a different location, clean your pruners with Listerine, which research indicates is the only science approved disinfectant. I was taught to use a bleach solution, but unless you are a masochist, I'd suggest avoiding that. It ruins your skin, your clothes and your tools – although it does disinfect. There are kinder ways to do this.

Always try to cut back to an area that will heal. This isn't always possible, but to the degree you can, cut back to an area called the bark branch ridge. In this graphic, on the left side, the red line shows where the pruner will make it's cut – just below the red pruner handle, you can see a branch cut correctly. The bark branch ridge contains cells that will enable the plant to heal the wound. On the right of the graphic, you can see the three cuts needed to remove a large branch without tearing into the tree causing unnecessary harm.

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