How To: Pruning Your Fruit Trees

Kristy Athens

Kristy Athens › Kristy Athens is the author of Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living (...


If you have fruit trees on your property, you might be thinking—free fruit! Well, it’s not quite that easy. Fruit trees aren’t as finicky as, say, basil or tomatoes, but they still need some TLC. Nurturing fruit trees is as important as tending your garden if you want to influence the amount and quality of fruit you harvest.

Winter is the time to prune fruit trees for shape and health. They are dormant in cold weather, which gives you an opportunity to remove dead material, as well as living material that isn’t growing how you want it. Depending on where in the United States you live, January through March is your window. Ideally, you want temperatures to still drop near freezing at night, but not be so cold that your hands are numb after five minutes with the clippers. That occasional warm, sunny afternoon is perfect.

In Get Your Pitchfork On!, I talk about having to chase Mike out of the orchard when it was time to do the winter trimming. He couldn’t stand the seemingly callous verve with which I worked over our fruit trees (for their own good, I might add!). Here’s an excerpt:

Winterkill is a big issue with perennials. During the winter, some of the new, tender branches will not be able to withstand the cold. These parts are easy to identify: They appear gray and withered in the spring. A little winterkill is normal, but don’t plant anything that isn’t rated to your area. I tried to grow rosemary, a remarkably successful plant in Portland, three years in a row before I finally gave up. It would thrive during the summer but just couldn’t fend off the week or so of single-digit temperatures we experienced every winter.

Woody plants should be trimmed during the last winter/early spring, while they’re still dormant. Read up on tree-trimming; shaping a tree is an art as well as a science. Always cut shoots (twigs that stick straight up on branches) and suckers (shoots that appear at the base of the tree). Use sharp tools, and clean them with rubbing alcohol or bleach between trees so you don’t spread disease. Pruning was something I had to do when Mike wasn’t around—he couldn’t bear to see so many branches getting unceremoniously whacked. I collected the ones with big buds and put them in a vase in the house, as they could sometimes be tricked into blooming. Later, they were dried for sweet-smelling kindling.

With new trees, shaping them well is crucial to their future health and strength. There are numerous online resources on how to trim a tree. The most frustrating part is that your tree will not look like the diagram. No tree looks like the diagram. Plus, the diagram is two-dimensional and your tree is three-dimensional. So you have to weigh the shape of the actual tree in front of you with how it is supposed to look. (Sort of like when you consider yourself in the mirror of the gym or the hair-cutting salon.)

As with all gardening, orchard pruning is ultimately about manipulation: you are coaxing the trees to produce as much healthy fruit, accessible to you, as possible. But tree-trimming is more complicated than pruning annuals or even perennial plants, as the investment is measured in the decades rather than in the seasons. Heed the advice of carpenters everywhere: Measure twice, cut once.

Take good care of your fruit trees, and they will take good care of you!

Have you pruned your fruit trees yet?

Photo Credit:  Mike Midlo