Your Guide to Easy Fruit Tree Care

When to prune fruit trees

Hands with gloves and hand pruner poised to prune apple tree | When to prune fruit trees

If you're wondering when to prune your fruit trees, the answer to that question depends on your goals. Do you want to reduce the size of a vigorous tree? Or, do you want to encourage a young fruit tree to grow faster? Correct fruit tree pruning, at the right time of year, can help you achieve those goals. These examples illustrate when it's best to prune a fruit tree: 

  • Is your tree already getting too tall to harvest easily? Consider pruning oversize trees (such as large cherry trees) in the early spring to reduce their size.
  • Do you want your young or newly planted tree to grow faster, or have you just planted a bare root tree? You can prune those in the late winter to spur vigorous growth. 

There are other factors to keep in mind while considering when to prune fruit trees. Is your tree diseased? Are some of the branches broken? Does your tree produce lots of poor quality fruit? Do you live in a very cold climate, in which late summer and autumn pruning can be risky? I'm going to explore some of these questions in this blog.

When do you prune fruit trees? Winter pruning is good for young trees as it spurs vigorous growth. Summer pruning is best if you want to keep your fruit trees small.

Fruit Tree Pruning as Energy Management

In general, winter fruit tree pruning spurs vigorous growth while summer slows growth down. But why is that? This has to do with your tree's seasonal cycle of energy. Done at the right time of year, fruit tree pruning helps growers manage the energy of their fruit trees. The infographic below provides a quick summary. For more detail, scroll to continue reading as I explore when and why to prune fruit trees, season by season. 

Infographic on when to prune fruit trees | Orchard People Fruit Tree Care

Why Fruit Tree Pruning in the Winter Spurs Growth

Winter: In the fall, fruit trees draw the energy out of their lush green leaves and into their root systems for winter storage. Once the energy has been sucked out of the leaves, those leaves will turn brown and fall off the tree. Fruit trees hardly grow at all during the winter months (their roots continue to grow, but that’s about it). So, your tree will use just a small percentage of its stored nutrients to keep it alive during the winter. Most of the remaining energy will be saved for a flurry of action in the spring, when fruit trees emerge from dormancy. Their buds break open and trees need their stored energy to fuel blossom, leaf, branch, and root growth.

Is winter a good time to prune fruit trees? If you live in a cold climate, winter pruning is fantastic because the tree is dormant, with no leaves, flowers, or fruit. That means it will be easy to see your tree's structure and to decide which cuts to make. And yet, some orchardists avoid fruit tree pruning in the early winter. This is because in the early winter, branch growth is minimal, and the tree cannot heal the wounds caused by pruning cuts. Late winter, however, is an excellent time to prune your trees. You can easily see the structure of your tree, and you can rest assured knowing that the spring is not far off and your tree will soon be able to heal those wounds. 

Winter pruning encourages vigorous growth: Moreover, when you prune your tree in the late winter or early spring, you will spur vigorous growth. Why? Well, because you are selecting the best branches to keep, while removing the lower quality branches. This means that when the spring comes, the tree won't waste its energy fueling the growth of poor quality branches. Instead, it will focus that energy on the best branches. 

Think about it this way: if your fruit tree has 100 branches and it needs to fuel growth in each of those branches, then each branch gets a small share of the stored energy. But if, after pruning, your tree has just 75 branches, each branch gets a larger share of that energy so it can grow longer and produce better quality fruit. 

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Woman pruning young pear tree in winter | When to prune fruit trees
Susan Poizner, Director of Orchard People Fruit Tree Care Education and Consulting, pruning a young pear tree.

Fruit Tree Pruning in The Spring

Spring: As spring approaches, the days become longer, the weather becomes warmer, and your tree starts to emerge from dormancy. It has a wonderful stash of energy or sugars in its roots, which it will use to power spring growth. The buds on your tree will burst open, making way for leaves, blossoms, baby fruit, and new shoots to emerge.

Is this a good time to prune fruit trees? Some orchardists like to prune in the spring after the tree's buds have opened and the blossoms and leaves have started to emerge. The benefit of pruning at this time is that you can identify (and remove) the branches that did not survive the winter. This is especially true for those who grow tender fruit trees, such as peach or apricot.

Pruning in the spring, however, will not encourage as much growth in your tree as it would if you had pruned in the late winter. That's because that tree has already used up some of its stored energy to fuel leaf, blossom, and shoot growth on its many branches before pruning. Spring is a good time to prune a large fruit tree if you want to make it more compact.

Man pruning apple tree in spring
A volunteer pruning one of the larger trees in Fennel Orchard. When you plant a larger tree, it's harder to create the ideal shape for growing fruit.

Fruit Tree Pruning in the Summer

Summer: Wow! The spring was a busy time for your tree! But once spring growth slows and the stored nutrients are used up, your tree can use the rest of the summer to rebuild its nutrient stockpile. Now fully leafed out, it will produce energy through photosynthesis, and will use some of that energy to fuel summer growth. The remaining energy will eventually be drawn back into the roots in the winter, when the cycle starts again.

Is this a good time to prune fruit trees? It can be. Summer pruning has many benefits. Because your tree doesn't have a stockpile of energy, it won't grow vigorously as a result of the summer pruning, so this can help you reduce the size of a larger tree. Great candidates for spring or summer pruning include cherry trees, which, if left alone, can grow up to three stories tall!

Even if your primary pruning session took place in the winter or early spring, you can continue pruning in the summer. This is the time to will remove any new growth branches that are broken, crisscrossed (and rubbing up against each other), or diseased. 

Woman pruning fruit tree in summer | When to prune fruit trees

Why Fruit Tree Pruning in the Autumn is Not Wise

Autumn: After a summer of sunshine, your tree has produced a large amount of food for itself. It does this through photosynthesis: a process by which your tree turns the light of the sun into sugars that are stored in its leaves. As the weather cools, the tree prepares for dormancy by moving those sugars down into its roots for winter storage.

Is this a good time to prune fruit trees? Well, if you live in a cold climate, autumn pruning is not a great idea. That's because every time you cut a branch off of a tree, you will leave behind a pruning wound.  That's not a problem during the growing season. Within days your tree will start healing the wound with a layer of protective cells. But in the fall, growth has slowed and that may not happen. 

Why do we prune fruit trees, anyways? Watch this video for a quick overview.

Pruning Diseased Fruit Trees

Are you wondering when to prune fruit trees that are diseased? Well, you can actually do this at any time of year. In the winter, it tends to be easier to see disease problems, as the branches of your tree are bare. However, you may choose to wait until late winter to ensure that the wound will heal quickly afterwards. Also, most diseases are dormant in the winter months. But if you see a diseased branch in winter or summer, it's usually a good idea to remove it so the disease (like black knot, canker, or fireblight) doesn't spread within the tree and to neighbouring trees. It is important to be able to identify the disease problem, to know if pruning is an effective treatment, and to know how much is necessary to cut off.

How to Prune Fruit Trees

Pruning is an essential part of fruit tree care. But if you don’t prune your tree correctly, you can hurt it more than help it. So, now that you know when to prune fruit trees, it’s important to how to prune your tree. Check out the video below to learn about pruning a newly planted bare root tree. Then, when you're ready to learn more about fruit tree pruning, sign up for one of my premium fruit tree care courses. Happy growing everyone!


Susan Poizner

Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education Online

Susan Poizner is an urban orchardist and the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards. She is the creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training program at www.orchardpeople.com and the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast. She is also an ISA Certified Arborist.

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