Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Late dormant season fruit tree pruning

Before buds break in March, prune dormant fruit trees. Recently I helped prune peaches in a Denver community garden (unpruned peach photo left). Peaches must be pruned hard every year as they only bear fruit on one year old twigs. Renew them yearly by pruning to replace nearly all fruiting wood. Two year old or older twigs are unproductive.

The photo left illustrates how hard this pruning should be on peaches (pruned branch left, unpruned tree right side of photo). You should end up with a skeleton of thick, blunt scaffold limbs sprouting very few thin, one year old twigs (photo right). Leave bearing twigs of 12 to 18 inches in length removing the shorter ones (bear small fruit) and longer ones (bear too many and are subject to breakage).

Twigs pointing upward and out at 45 degree angles from horizontal are most productive. Remove vertical and downward pointing twigs. “Stacked” twigs or branches growing over top one another shade the lower twig so remove one of them.

Prune trees to allow light into the center of the tree. With fruit trees, light equals fruit. Dense, unpruned trees will yield poorly. Remove dead and interfering branches, renew fruiting wood, and control size to keep bearing wood close to the ground.

Maintain a zone of equilibrium between excess growth (the rank growth tendency of the top of the tree) and poor fruiting (lower portion tendency). Do this by pruning harder in upper, outer portions of a tree to allow light in. Most home gardeners tend to prune mature trees too little.

Finally, remember that pears, cherries, apricots and most apples bear fruit on short spurs that last for some years. This is very different than peaches so don’t prune off the short spurs or you will have no crop.

Here’s hoping that spring freezes spare our fruit tree blossoms so we can have a good fruit crop this year.

Photo credit, All peach pruning photos, Carl Wilson


  1. Great information. We live in Southeastern Washington where we have experienced a fairly mild winter and an early spring. Our apricot, plum, and peach trees are all abud but, alas, we have not pruned them. Can we safely remove the overabundance of branches/shoots without harming the tree?

  2. Tree fruits are generally not pruned during bud break and early growth. They are pruned late winter dormant or in early summer when fruit is a small size. It's probably better to wait until summer.

  3. We live in Castle Rock, CO. We have an apple tree of unknown variety. I doubt it has ever been prunned. Where do I start? How much pruning can be done at a time. There are buds on the branches that are not open yet, can I still prune in April or wait until next year. The tree is approimately 16' in diameter and 12' tall.

  4. Old, overgrown trees are pruning challenges for sure. It's too late for late winter dormant pruning and it's too early for summer pruning. In general we don't like to remove any more than 25 percent of the wood from a tree annually. You could do some this in summer and more next winter. At first you will likely be making custs into large wood to reduce the height/size of the tree. In the second or more likely third years you can get into making finer pruing management cuts. It's better to remove wood gradually over several years rather than all at once throwing a tree into severe shock. Remember that trees store carbohydrates in branches so when wood is removed, you're taking away some of a tree's energy supply. I'd recommend getting a book on fruit tree pruning for more extensive information.