When to Prune Fruit Trees?
The Answer Depends on Your Goals…

When to prune fruit trees

When to Prune Fruit Trees

Wondering when to prune fruit trees? The answer depends on your goals. So, let’s say that you have a small, young apple tree and you want it to grow quickly and produce a better quality harvest. In that case, late winter pruning is a great idea because winter pruning spurs vigorous growth.

But what if you have a cherry tree that is already too large to harvest? In that case, you might opt for summer pruning. When you prune your fruit tree during the summer you can reduce its size by cutting off some of its branches (never more than 25 percent of them a year though) without encouraging vigorous growth.

There are also other considerations when considering when to prune fruit trees. Is your tree diseased? Are some of the branches broken? Does it 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.

Why Fruit Tree Pruning Timing is Important

But first of all why does winter pruning spur vigorous growth when summer pruning does not? Well, let’s look at it this way: When you have lots of gas in your car, you drive a long way. But if your car’s gas tank is empty, you’re not going to get too far at all. In the same way, fruit trees grow quickly when they have lots of energy in the early spring and their growth slows as the summer progresses.

Pollination is just one of the things to consider | When to prune fruit trees

During the spring your fruit tree uses its stockpile of sugars so that it has the energy to support flowering, fruiting and new branch growth.

When you understand your tree’s seasonal cycle of energy, it becomes easier to decide 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 your fruit tree’s 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, not so much. That’s because the tree won’t have much energy to heal the wounds caused by pruning and any tender young shoots that grow as a result of pruning may freeze and break off during the harsh winter months.

Why Fruit Tree Pruning in the Winter Spurs Growth

Winter: In the fall your tree has stashed its excess nutrients – or sugars – in it roots. At that point the tree is able to go into dormancy and its leaves, drained of nutrients and now looking quite brown, fall off. 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.

Is this a good time to prune fruit trees? If you live in a cold climate, winter pruning is ideal because the tree is dormant, with no leaves, flowers or fruit. That means it will be easy to see and correct the structure of the tree. And yet, most orchardists avoid fruit tree pruning in the early winter. That’s because in the early winter, branch growth is minimal and the tree cannot heal the wounds caused by pruning cuts. But the late winter  is an ideal time to prune your trees. You can easily see the structure of your tree, and you can rest assured knowing that in the spring your fruit tree will release its stored energy and it will heal those wounds. 

Moreover, when you prune your tree in the late winter or early spring, you will spur vigorous growth. Why? Well, you are selecting the best branches to grow and produce fruit and removing lower quality branches. So instead of spreading its stored energy out to 50 branches, for instance, your tree will divide it’s energy up amongst the remaining carefully selected 35 branches after pruning. Each branch will have a larger share of the tree’s energy so it can grow more vigorously and produce better quality fruit.

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Group pruning fruit trees - when to prune fruit trees

You can prune out fruit tree disease problems at any time of year in order to prevent the disease from spreading to other trees. Photo credit: Mohawk College

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? Many orchardists like to prune in the spring after the tree has started leafing out because at that time they can see (and remove) the branches that did not survive the winter. This is especially true for those who grow tender fruit trees, like peach trees or apricots.

Pruning in the spring, however, will not encourage as much growth in your tree as it would if you pruned in the late winter. That’s because some of its stored energy will have been used to leaf out the tree’s many branches before pruning occurred. Spring might be a good time to prune a large fruit tree, if you want to make it more compact.

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 again produce energy through photosynthesis. Some of that energy it will use to fuel  slow but steady summer growth. Some of the energy will 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 that can help you reduce the size of a larger tree. Summer pruning is also great in addition to winter pruning. In the summer, you can see if one branch is shading out another and remove it. (That’s called “corrective pruning”)

And in the summer, you can also remove any branches that are broken, crisscrossed (and rubbing up against each other) or diseased.  However, if you live in a very cold climate you may want to avoid pruning in the late summer. As in the autumn, any shoots that result from late summer pruning will be very tender because they haven’t had enough time to grow and harden up. Those shoots many not survive the winter.

Pruning Diseased Fruit Trees

Are you wondering when to prune fruit trees that are diseased? The answer is that you can do that at any time of year. Often in the winter it is easier to see disease problems as the branches of your tree are bare. You may choose to wait until late winter to ensure that the wound will heal quickly afterwards though. Also, most diseases are dormant in the winter months. But winter or summer, if you see a diseased branch, 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. The important thing is to be able to identify the disease problem and to know if pruning is an effective treatment and how much is necessary to cut off.

How to Prune Fruit Trees

When to prune fruit treesPruning 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, next it’s important to how to prune your tree. You can learn how to prune fruit trees (and how to protect them from pests and disease) by signing up for OrchardPeople.com’s Certificate in Fruit Tree Care. Happy growing everyone!

Susan Poizner

Susan Poizner

Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education Online

Susan Poizner is the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards,  creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training at www.orchardpeople.com, and host of RealityRadio101.com’s  Urban Forestry Radio Show. Susan grows fruit trees in Toronto, Canada.