Make the most of your cuts

Thanks to the boyhood tale of George Washington who “chopped down the cherry tree with his little hatchet,” we have an early example of improper fruit tree pruning. Often, it’s either too much or not enough when it comes to fruit tree maintenance.

Keep orchards clean and free of leaves and brush under trees to prevent insects and disease from attacking trees. Top of page, Space between rows of fruit trees allows for mowers and easy removal of limbs and branches during pruning.

According to Dr. David W. Lockwood of the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service, “Excessive pruning will dwarf the tree, delay fruit bearing and result in smaller crops, at least for a few years, when the tree starts bearing.” Prune only enough to develop the framework of scaffold branches.

What are the advantages of pruning? An article written by Gary Moulton and Jacky King, WSU Mount Vernon Research & Extension Units at Washington State University, “Pruning Tree Fruit—The Basics” states the following:

“Fruit trees need pruning for two primary purposes: to establish the basic structure, and to provide light channels throughout the tree so that all the fruit can mature well. A well pruned tree is easier to maintain and to harvest, and adds esthetic value to the home garden as well, but the primary reason for pruning is to ensure good access to sunlight. Did you ever notice that the best fruit always seems to be in the top of the tree? It’s true, because that’s where the most light is available. Training a tree that is open to the light, and easy to care for and to harvest, is the main consideration to keep in mind when pruning, whatever system you are using.”

Late winter or early spring is the best time for pruning, when the tree is dormant. In heavy pruning, the tree becomes invigorated and much of the new growth goes into vegetation, leaving little energy for fruit growth and development. Spring pruning produces many new and vigorous upright shoots, known as water sprouts. These can shade the plant and poor growth occurs. If using spring pruning, do this before the first blooms appear, but after the last hard freeze is recorded for your growing zone. After summer fruit has been gathered, growers may need to lightly prune trees to keep them in shape.

Type of pruning cuts

In a paper prepared by Michael Parker, extension horticulture specialist with the North Carolina Extension Service, he recommends three major types of pruning:

• Thinning Cut—removes the entire shoot back to a side shoot. Thinning cuts do not invigorate the tree in comparison to some of the other pruning cuts.

• Heading Cut—removes only the terminal portion of a shoot. This type of cut promotes the growth of lower buds as well as several terminal buds below the cut. When lateral branches are headed into one-year-old wood, the area near the cut is invigorated. The headed branch is much stronger and rigid, resulting in lateral secondary branching. Older trees can be held in their allotted space by mold and hold cuts, which are devigorating heading cuts made into two-year-old wood.

• Bench Cut—removes vigorous, upright shoots back to the side branches that are relatively flat and outward growing. Beach cuts are used to open up the center of the tree and spread the branches outward. This is a major cut and should only be used when necessary.

The open center system is a common pruning technique for all kinds of fruit trees, but it is used most often with peach and nectarine trees. New suckers growing near the center will be removed during winter pruning.

When making cuts, use techniques that allow the cut surface to heal quickly. Slow healing wounds invite disease and insect infection. Make pruning cuts flush with the adjacent branch without leaving stubs. Make horizontal cuts slightly at an angle so that water does not set on the cut surface, which can produce growth of rot and disease organisms.

Dr. Lockwood suggests that for cuts 2 inches in diameter or less, there is no advantage in applying a wound dressing. For larger cuts, a wound dressing may aid in healing. A wound dressing with an asphalt base is preferable although paints with lead or zinc are satisfactory. Creosote paints or dressings containing Bordeaux mixture may injure the cambium and delay healing.

Choosing the right tools

It’s often said, “A craftsman is only as good as his tools.” This applies to growers of fruit trees as much as any other activity. Any job is easier with the right tools. Tools kept in good condition means you can accomplish the job of pruning quicker and be more efficient. Making cleaner cuts lessens the chance that disease does not enter the wound.

This apple tree shows the effects when decay and dead branches overtake a fruit tree.

Invest in top-quality stainless steel tools that with care, can last for years. Check for these qualities: Are the handles comfortable? Are the tools adaptable to your size and physical strength? Before purchasing, handle the tool and see if it feels right for you. Always clean tools after each use and oil metal parts occasionally, especially before storing for the season. Return them to the designated storage space so they can be quickly found when needed.

Improper pruning results in suckers and decay, which weakens fruit trees and makes it an easy target for insects and disease.

Never use carpentry saws to prune a living tree. Due to the fine teeth and being closely set, they soon get clogged with damp sawdust, making for unnecessarily arduous labor. The following tools can handle most fruit tree pruning needs.

A hand pruner handles tips and smaller branches. This tool allows you to get in close and eliminate suckers that grow from the base. These come in either bypass or anvil-type pruners. For close pruning, the bypass-type is better for using on young trees.

A folding saw is handy as it can be carried in the pocket until ready to open. Any branch thicker than a finger should be cut with long-handled lopping shears (also called two-handed pruning shears) or a pruning saw. Use a bow saw for larger branches. A pole pruner allows you to stand on the ground and reach higher limbs. This may be necessary when wind damage or diseased branches must be removed. If using a ladder, tie the top rung security to the trunk of the tree. Aluminum ladders are lighter than wooden ones and the serrated rungs provide protection against slipping from wet or muddy shoes. Always use caution when climbing and carrying tools. Also, be aware of overhead power lines when moving a ladder, especially if made of metal.

Another piece of equipment is a sharp pruning knife for trimming the edges around the rough cuts. This helps eliminates fungi from forming and water sprouts that may occur later. Sturdy gloves protect hands from scratches or blisters that may form from using tools. Protective goggles keep wood fragments or saw dust from the eyes.

Maintenance of fruit trees makes for quality fruit and healthy trees. Know the various pruning techniques when it comes to peaches, nectarines, apples, pears, cherries and some plums.

Carolyn Ross Tomlin is a freelance writer based in Jackson, Tenn.

Terms Used in Pruning

If growing fruit trees are a new business for you, perhaps these terms will help as you becoming more familiar with the basics of pruning.

Bracket fungi—Fungal growths which are large, flattish and fan-shaped appearing on tree bark. These growths indicate internal rotting has taken over and the bough or tree must be removed.

Collar—When cutting a branch, the collar is the ridge of bark that surrounds the branch’s base. Making your cut just inside this ridge will allow the resulting wound to heal.

Heart Rot—Usually an old-age disease among trees, which causes the center of the tree to rot. May be caused by insects, physical injury and weather damage. Heart rot fungi can invade living trees. Healthy trees may stop the infection by producing cells that fight off the disease. Older trees have little resistance to the condition.

Suckers—Also called water sprouts, these are shoots that grow from the base of a tree and are common on grafted trees. They can grow from pruning wounds on trees.

Internet Resources for Pruning Fruit Trees

For a more complete resource on types of pruning for the various fruit trees, consult these Internet resources. You’ll find information on different pruning systems, such as the open center, central leader, trellis and umbrella that are recommended for the various fruit trees.

Kansas State University Horticulture Report, Pruning Fruit Trees:

North Carolina Extension Services. Training and Pruning Fruit Trees:

Washington State University: “Pruning Fruit Trees—The Basics”:

Wikipedia Encyclopedia, Fruit Tree Pruning: