Plant Lady: You’ve got ques­tions about prun­ing fruit trees; we’ve got an­swers

The Sacramento Bee - - Home&garden - BY MAR­LENE SI­MON Spe­cial to The Bee

The time to prune most fruit trees is when they have dropped their leaves and be­fore buds open in spring.

Prun­ing in the dor­mant sea­son is ideal be­cause of two rea­sons: you can eas­ily see the tree struc­ture and it en­cour­ages fruit pro­duc­tion for the up­com­ing spring sea­son and fruit­ing wood for fu­ture sea­sons.

Let’s fo­cus on fruit trees that are at least 3 years old — trees with their main scaf­fold­ing branches formed. I’ll dis­cuss prun­ing younger trees in a fu­ture ar­ti­cle. The goal here is to cover the ba­sics of prun­ing. Th­ese are the tech­niques I suc­cess­fully em­ploy with my fruit trees. I am go­ing to fo­cus on meth­ods pro­mot­ing an open cen­ter (think of a tree with a vase shape). This is an ar­chi­tec­ture which works well for all fruit trees.


On all fruit trees the first step of prun­ing is to re­move bro­ken or dead branches. If not sure if a branch is dead, scrape it lightly. A vi­able branch will have green tis­sue di­rectly un­der the bark. Sec­ond, make sure to re­move any suck­ers — th­ese are branches com­ing di­rectly from the root­stock.

What’s the root­stock? Most fruit trees are grafted onto a dif­fer­ent root sys­tem to fa­cil­i­tate bet­ter grow­ing per­for­mance. The root­stock is any­thing be­low the graft line. If al­lowed to grow, suck­ers from the root­stock can sap en­ergy from the grafted va­ri­ety (termed a scion).

Now that ini­tial prun­ing is done, we’ll move onto the next step, thin­ning cuts.

Ideally, trees will have a struc­ture with three to five equally dis­trib­uted main branches, form­ing a vase shape. Th­ese scaf­fold branches should be shaped in the first three to five years of the tree’s life. Thin­ning cuts re­move an en­tire branch back to the scaf­fold branch, or to an­other branch larger in girth than the one be­ing re­moved.

The Goal is to have 6 to 12 inches of space around each branch, yield­ing an open, evenly spaced canopy. This al­lows sun­light in and pro­motes air cir­cu­la­tion. Both in­crease fruit pro­duc­tion and de­crease pests and dis­eases.

Leave branches which are ei­ther grow­ing par­al­lel to the ground (hor­i­zon­tal) or up to a 45 de­gree an­gle (up­wards) — try to leave equal num­bers of each.

Hor­i­zon­tal branches tend to be fruit­ing this sea­son, and up­wards branches are your fu­ture fruit­ing limbs.

Branches grow­ing at an­gles of greater than 45 de­grees (more ver­ti­cal) can break with heavy fruit.

Re­move branches grow­ing in­wards (to­ward the trunk).

Re­move branches grow­ing down­wards — th­ese rarely fruit.


Be­fore go­ing to the next step, we need to con­sider the age of the branches.

The age of fruit­ing wood — the branches that will pro­duce fruit — varies amongst fruit tree species.

To tell the age of a branch you can look for color vari­a­tions. Cur­ren­tyear wood will be green, gen­er­ally, sec­ond-year wood will have more of a red­dish-brown color, fol­lowed by older wood be­ing more brown and bark­cov­ered.

This color chart works very well for most prun­ing. For those look­ing for a higher-res­o­lu­tion tech­nique to de­ter­mine age, you can look at bud scale scars, which are laid down each year. If there is in­ter­est in this, let me know and I will do a fu­ture ar­ti­cle on this method.


With the thin­ning cuts done, the tree has a de­sir­able struc­ture. Head­ing cuts shorten re­main­ing ter­mi­nal branches — those with­out other branches (longer than 6 inches) com­ing off them. Th­ese cuts are go­ing to pro­mote veg­e­ta­tive growth and fruit­ing.

Cut di­rectly above a bud, leav­ing about ¼-inch of stem. If you leave any more stem, the tree will have a hard time heal­ing.

Prune back to a bud that is fac­ing the di­rec­tion you want the new branch to grow. In other words, cut to a bud fac­ing out­wards and up­wards.

Be­low is a guide to which groups of fruits pro­duce on dif­fer­ent ages of wood. This will guide you as to which age of branches to prune and which to leave to en­sure op­ti­mal fruit pro­duc­tion.


Th­ese form fruit on branches grown in the pre­vi­ous year (1-year-old wood), which will have a red­dish color to it.

Goal 1: Re­move enough wood more than 2 years old to re­new growth for fu­ture sea­sons.

Goal 2: Keep enough 1-year-old wood to have fruit for the up­com­ing sea­son.

Rule of thumb: Re­move about 50% of last year’s growth (1-year-old wood).


Form fruit on wood that is 2 years old or older, which will be brown­ish with bark.

Th­ese trees have fruit­ing wood that can re­main pro­duc­tive longer than peaches/nec­tarines (up to 10 years).

Rule of thumb: Re­move about 20% of last year’s growth.


Q: Why are my or­anges split­ting while on the tree?

A: Split­ting of cit­rus is caused by the plant tak­ing up more wa­ter and sug­ars than the rind can ac­com­mo­date. Al­most al­ways it is due to tem­per­a­ture and wa­ter fluc­tu­a­tions. Hot, dry winds late in the sea­son can also cause crack­ing. The hot winds will pull mois­ture out of the plant, in­clud­ing the fruit.

When the plant is wa­tered, mois­ture will reen­ter the shriv­eled fruit, caus­ing it to swell sud­denly and crack the rind. To pre­vent this, it is im­por­tant to keep soil mois­ture even. This means not al­low­ing the tree to wilt and then wa­ter heav­ily. Also, avoid over­wa­ter­ing late in the sea­son when plants’ hy­dra­tion re­quire­ments de­crease.


Dwarf fig trees pro­duce sweet fruit about twice a year.

JEN­NIFER HEFFNER Wash­ing­ton Post

The Brad­ford pear’s fruit was meant to be ster­ile, but when pol­li­nated by other callery pears, it be­came fer­tile.

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