Pruning fruit trees is an art
more than a science. There are general rules and methods
that need to be observed when it comes down to making a
cut, but knowing where to make that cut is an art. Years
of pruning will make a person a better pruning artist
just by trial and error. A lot of the art is simply
standing back and taking a look at the tree and
visualizing where the cuts need to be made.
be pruning to make a healthy, more productive tree as
well as to produce larger fruit. There are many methods
of pruning a tree for best health and fruiting, but most
fruit trees are pruned to just three tree structures:
Central Leader System. After you plant a young tree,
prune the tree back about one-third to account for root
disturbance. As the tree grows, let the main trunk grow
upward with limbs coming off the main trunk. Limit the
branches to the number that produces well for that
species. Remember that too many branches will result in
Prune the branches that come off the
main leader so that there is a spacing of at least 8
inches, but no more that 2 feet, between limbs. On very
young trees the spacing will be less than 8 inches, but
as the tree grows the space will increase. Spacing the
branches is where the “art” comes in. You just have to
stand back and look at the tree to see where to cut so
that the tree has a balanced look.
Crotch angles are
important to the central leader system and are discussed
below along with pruning because they influence pruning
Open Center System. After you plant a
young tree, prune the top back about one-third to help
the tree recover from the disturbance of the roots. The
nurseries always seem to cut a few roots and the hair
roots are mostly destroyed when the trees are barerooted
for shipment. When you cut the main leader/trunk, cut it
so that the center will remain open. Since this does not
happen in one year, you will need to keep cutting the
branches back in the center of the tree so that no main
trunk develops above where your scaffold branches come
off the tree. You will want to select the branches to be
saved in a symmetrical pattern. In other words, leave
branches as evenly spaced around the tree as possible.
Limit the branches to what you think the tree can
support and also yield good fruit production. Again,
remember, too many branches mean smaller fruit.
Natural. Some fruit species need no training but do need
other pruning procedures to maintain a healthy fruitful
tree. All fruit trees need to have any dead wood removed
on an annual basis. Also, broken limbs need to be pruned
off and new spurs need to be developed to replace them.
There are big differences in how you prune different
fruit species. Here is how to prune the major fruit
species in Texas. The type of pruning system is noted
for each species.
Apple — Central leader system.
Apples tend to have very narrow crotch angles; the
branches come off the tree at an angle that is too
upward-growing. These angles need to be increased by
spreading the branches. This will cause the tree to have
a more spreading look instead of being upright and
You can use several methods for spreading the
branches. Blocks of wood with notches cut in each end
will help with spreading. These can be placed in the
tree between the main leader and the branches. Wire
running from a branch to a tie down on the ground can be
used to pull the limbs down to increase the crotch
angle. Use padding of some type where the wire is tied
around the limb to prevent branch damage. By increasing
the crotch angles you will allow more light into the
tree for better overall tree health and fruit bearing.
You still need to prune away some of the branches that
come off the main leader. Prune so that you have a good
spacing between branches. Again, this is where the “art”
comes in, and with correct spacing your tree will have a
balanced look. Do not leave too many branches as this
will result in poor tree health and smaller fruit.
There are spur-type apple trees that have a strong main
leader and very short branches. These types of trees
produce few branches, so do not remove any limbs. The
crotch angles on these trees are usually sufficient
without spreading as they are so short.
Open center system. Prune young trees to an open center
by cutting off the central leader and promoting
scaffold-branch growth. You can cut the central leader
of a newly purchased young tree about 50 percent of its
height. Some people even cut the new tree back to about
a foot from the ground to train a tree that can be
maintained at a slightly dwarf size. Apricots tend to
grow long slender branches. Cut back the branches that
have grown out too far to maintain good tree balance.
Prune out some of the smaller wood each year to
stimulate growth. As apricots bear on 2-year-old
fruiting spurs that form on the scaffold branches, you
do not want to prune too many of these branches, but you
must prune some so that new growth can occur, resulting
in new fruiting wood in two years.
Natural. Although blueberries in Texas are normally left
to grow as they will, pruning can help. On newly planted
blueberry plants cut back the top about one-third to
compensate for root damage. When buying plants, it is
best to look for good roots rather than big tops. During
the first 6 or 7 years, do not prune other than to
remove any dead, diseased or crossing wood. After the
bush is mature, remove about one-fifth of the limbs at
ground level on a yearly basis. This will rejuvenate the
bushes for better crops. With the fifth year of mature
pruning, you will have a completely rejuvenated bush
without sacrificing much production.
and ‘pick your own’ operations prune to maintain good
shape for easy picking. Keeping the bushes at a good
level for picking by removing some of the top on mature
trees may be desirable for these operations. But there
are mixed opinions on top-pruning.
leader system. Cherries are vigorous growers and need
frequent pruning. They do need some spreading of the
limbs as they tend to grow too upright with not enough
spreading. Also, spreading the limbs prevents some
winter injury. Try to balance the growth of the central
leader with the growth of the branches. Each year prune
to balance the growth. By cutting back the scaffold
branches you will have better shoot growth. The shoots
are where the fruiting buds are located, so you want
good shoot growth each year.
Be careful when you
start spreading the limbs to get better crotch angles.
Apply just enough pressure to make the limb spread.
Cherry wood is a little more brittle than many other
fruit trees and will break if too much pressure is
Citrus — Natural. Citrus trees do not need
much pruning, but some is necessary. Semi-annually,
prune to remove suckers that grow from the base of the
tree. You need to keep removing these suckers or they
will take energy from your tree. Many commercial growers
also top and hedge mature trees to make for easier
picking and maintenance. Hedging means blocking the
sides of the trees square with the row like you would
any ornamental hedge.
Remove any dead or diseased
limbs. Dispose of these removed limbs away from your
trees and, if badly diseased, burn the limbs. Citrus
diseases can be a real problem. Remove any crossing
limbs. Pruning is best done after fruiting and before
Fig — Natural. Most fig trees are never
pruned and produce many figs. But a little pruning can
help your fig tree. If you buy a large fig and the roots
receive any damage, prune the top back about the same
percentage as the roots were damaged. This will help the
tree recover from transplanting. As your tree grows,
remove any limbs that are growing toward the ground.
Also, remove any branches or limbs that are growing too
On mature fig trees you can cut back
the tips of the main trunks three to six inches in late
winter to produce larger, sweeter figs. Do not try this
on young trees as you will restrict their development.
Also, remove any dead or diseased wood.
Natural. Little or no pruning is needed to maintain a
jujube tree. But remove any diseased or dead wood to
maintain good tree health. Remove any suckers that come
from below ground. Jujubes are nearly always grafted on
a wild rootstock so these suckers are detrimental to the
tree. Sometimes the suckers will show up 30 or more feet
from the tree. Pruning the tree or cutting a root will
result in more of these undesirable suckers.
Nectarine — Open center system. Peaches are one of the
most common fruit trees for home growers in Texas. They
are also one of the trees that are most commonly
incorrectly pruned or not pruned at all by many
homeowners. Not pruning will result in a diseased tree
that will die within a few years from overproduction of
vegetative growth and small fruit.
With peaches and
nectarines, heavy pruning in the spring is necessary to
get the best crop and have a healthy tree. Peaches bear
fruit on year-old wood, so prune for good production.
Prune out all hanging branchlets. Hanging means the
branch is pointing toward the ground. Prune out any
crossing or dead wood. Look at the tree and remember
that you want the center open for good light
penetration. Because most of the new growth will be in
the top of the tree, that is where you will do most of
your pruning. Keep the tree at a manageable height. You
want the scaffold branches going out and slightly
upward. Head-back the scaffold branches each year so
they do not get too long.
Pruning out too little wood
is the most common mistake in pruning peach trees. If
you have trouble determining how much wood to remove in
the early spring, wait until the trees are in bloom and
prune back where you see too many blooms. You want the
fruit no closer than about three inches apart. So prune
accordingly. Pruning too much will result in larger
fruit so that is really not a problem.
leader system. Pear trees need little pruning but since
the branches generally have narrow crotch angles a
little spreading of the branches is useful to produce a
more spreading tree. When you prune a pear tree, you
will see water sprouts (vegetative growth at the cut
sites) and the terminal growth increase. Both these
things are undesirable. Fireblight is a major problem
with a lot of pear varieties and any cuts will increase
the chance of blight entering the tree through a cut.
Applying a wound dressing to all cuts on a pear tree is
necessary to help with healing and fireblight
prevention. But you will need to remove any rubbing
limbs, water sprouts and damaged or dead wood.
Persimmon — Open center system or Central leader system.
Persimmons have been pruned to both these systems with
good production. The problem with the open-center system
is that when you have a heavy crop, the scaffold limbs
tend to break. Though, if you develop strong scaffold
branches by training and heading back, you will have a
better open-center tree.
The central leader system is
probably best for small growers and homeowners. It has
the advantage of having a strong framework and being
easy to maintain. When planting new trees prune the top
back about one-third. If you are going to grow your tree
with the central leader system, be sure the central
leader is the tallest limb. If another outside limb is
taller than the central leader, cut it back below the
Remove any dead or diseased wood on
a yearly basis. In late winter, prune to shape your tree
with some heading-back and remove any limbs that are too
Plum and Prune — Open center system.
Prune to create an open center on young plum trees. Once
you have established the open center with no central
leader, you can cut back on your pruning in later years.
Prune out small branches, dead and crossing wood
annually. Thin limbs throughout the tree to maintain
good light penetration. Pruning plums is necessary on an
annual basis, but only prune on a limited basis. Plums
do not need near as much pruning as peaches.
Pomegranate — Natural with some training. Pomegranates
need to be pruned to establish shape when young. Nearly
all pomegranates are on their own roots, so any growth
from below ground level will be true to variety. Prune
to two to three main branches/trunks in most areas of
Texas. In Coastal and South Texas, you can grow them as
a single trunk tree. Remove any shoots that come from
below ground other than the main trunks or trunk.
Pomegranates tend to sucker a lot in the early years and
these suckers need to be removed at least twice a year,
in late spring and early fall. When the trees get older,
top the trees at about 10 feet for easier picking.
Reclaiming Un-pruned Trees. If you have a tree that has
never been pruned and you want to establish better
orchard practices, start with pruning a little to
improve the shape. Do not try to completely reshape the
tree in one year. This will result in too many open cuts
and could cause the tree to die. Start with a little the
first year and complete the shape training in the second
or third year.
Tools. Use pruning shears for most
pruning jobs. There are several types. Just be sure they
make a clean smooth cut and do not just smash or tear
the limb off. A fine-tooth tree saw is also necessary
for larger limbs. When pruning pears, a wound dressing
is necessary, and it is also good to use a wound
dressing on apple trees. On any larger limbs measuring
more than 1-1/2 inches in diameter also use wound
dressing for best healing of the wound.
pruning. Most pruning operations are carried out in late
winter. Mid- to late January for South Texas, late
January to early February in Central Texas and
mid-February in North Texas. Removal of dead or diseased
wood can be done at any time.
Richard Ashton is the author of several
books on fruit growing, including The Incredible
Pomegranate — Plant and Fruit; Jujube — The Chinese
Date; Sweet Cherries — For Southern Orchards and
of North America. They are all available from Third
Millennium Publishing on the internet at