Fruit trees are an amazing long-term investment for your property. Though they may take a few years to bear fruit, they will continue to be productive for years to come if well taken care of. Before jumping right in, it is important to understand the work that goes along with having successful fruit trees. Fruit trees need ample amounts of water, space to grow and pest control measures; but the most labor intensive part of owning them is the annual pruning. Apple trees are one of the most popular fruit trees to grow, though pear trees and cherries can be delightful additions to your yard. Be sure you've chosen fruits that do well in your area.
Why To Prune
There are many advantages to pruning your fruit trees regularly. From creating healthier trees to improving appearance, annual maintenance can make a world of difference for your trees. Other benefits include larger yields of fruit, easier harvesting, juicer fruits and a lower chance of diseases affecting your trees. Pruning a fruit tree before it begins to bud allows for the tree to focus more of its energy on fewer fruits, increasing the quality of your yield. The best time for pruning is while the plants are still dormant before the spring bud's break.
Formative pruning takes place in the first three years after a tree is planted in order to get it in good working order before it starts producing fruit. The vase form is the most common way to prune a fruit tree because it allows for more space underneath the tree for companion planting bushes, shrubs, or herbs. It is also a universal form that can be used with any fruit tree. The other option, the central leader form, looks more like a Christmas tree and it gets narrower as you go towards the top.
To get started pruning, find a group of buds at your chosen height. This could be 2-3 feet for a shorter tree, or a bit higher if you would like to grow other plants underneath your tree. Prune right above the top bud at your chosen height. The buds near the top will begin to branch off, and they can be pruned again to the appropriate length the following year. If you do not prune your original tree ‘whip', it will continue to grow in length and begin to branch off unpredictably, which may lead to a larger tree.
To start to cultivate a vase-shaped tree, in the first year after your tree starts branching choose 3-5 main branches and remove the others. To create the shape that you want, you may need to use tree-ties and stakes to gently hold the branches in place. Once there is no more tension on the ties, the branches are in place. In the second year, choose 2-3 new branches off each of your original branches to prune by half and remove any excess branches. Remove any branches growing in the center to maintain a vase shape. Repeat this process the following year, and after that you can rely on maintenance pruning.
To get started on your yearly maintenance, first remove any dead, diseased or crossing branches on the tree. Crossing branches are the ones overlapping with other healthy branches, which can cause wounds and unruly growth in the tree. At this point, you should also be sure to remove suckers growing from the rootstock of the tree because they can sap the vitality of the original tree.
The next step in pruning is working to maintain the original shape of the tree. Here, you will need to remove the new branches that are disrupting air flow and impeding tree form. Vase-shaped trees need the branches removed from the middle while central leader trees require competing leader branches to be removed.
The third and final step is pruning to maintain tree size and renew fruiting wood. The most important rule to remember is to cut new growth back by half, at a 45-degree-angle, about a ¼" above an outward facing bud. This directs new growth away from the center of the tree and directs water away from the growing bud to prevent rot. Branches that dip below horizontal lose vigor and produce smaller fruit, so pruning back to the spot before the branch turns down will help create a healthier crop.
Some trees have different requirements that are important to take into consideration before making any cuts. Apricot trees should only be pruned in the late spring to early fall to ensure diseases aren't able to enter. Persimmons, pomegranates, and figs should not have the ends with new growth cut off because that's where the fruit emerges.