When to prune fruit trees

Are you wondering when to prune fruit trees? Well, 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. Here are some examples illustrating when to prune a fruit tree: 

  • You would consider pruning an overly large cherry tree in the early spring to reduce tree size.
  • You might prune a newly planted bare root whip (apple, cherry, apricot, plum etc.) or a slow growing, mature fruit tree in the late winter to spur vigorous growth. 

There are other factors to keep in mind when you are 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.

Fruit Tree Pruning as Energy Management

In general, winter fruit tree pruning spurs vigorous growth while summer slows growth down. But why is that? Well, that all has to do with your tree’s seasonal cycle of energy. Fruit tree pruning, at the right time of year, helps growers manage the energy of their fruit trees. For a quick summary, check out the infographic below. Then to delve into more detail, scroll down to continue reading the article as I explore when and why to prune fruit trees, season by season. 

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 spring flurry of action. That’s the time 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. 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 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, you are selecting the best branches to keep. And you are removing the lower quality branches. That means that when the spring comes, it won’t waste its energy fuelling 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 has 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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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 that time is that you 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 that tree has already used up some of its stored energy to fuel leaf, blossom and shoot growth on that tree’s many branches before pruning. Spring is 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 produce energy through photosynthesis. Some of that energy it will use 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 that 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 when you will remove any newly growth branches that are broken, crisscrossed (and rubbing up against each other) or diseased. 

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, 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. 

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

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, next 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

Susan Poizner

Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education Online

Susan Poizner is an ISA Certified Arborist and 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.