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Fruit Tree Pruning

by Laura Tattersall

When: Late winter or early spring.  End of April is getting to limit for apple and pear, plum and cherry. Peaches and apricots are pruned when risk of frost is over.  Crabapples are an exception, because they are grown for flowers not fruit usually, they can be pruned after the flower (late May).

Why: Pruning and thinning a fruit tree creates bigger fruit, and increases the health of the fruit by allowing better air circulation and better sunlight penetration. Pruning is also used to manage the trees height, making fruit more pick-able.

Before you start, get a clear picture in your head (or your digital camera) of the size and scope of the tree. When fruit tree pruning, the rule of thumb is not to take off more than one third of the branches, but I have found that is too excessive, and one quarter per year is more realistic. If too many major branches are cut, suckering will be excessive. Sucker branches grow straight up, and take a long time before they produce fruit, while creating shade and impeding circulation.

    I use a large tarp under / near the tree for branches I have cut off, this gives a visual reference for how much has been cut. The tarp is then useful for dragging branches to dump site/trailer. For sanitation reasons, any branches that are cut off for reasons of disease should not be composted. Take them to the city green facilities or burn them. Likewise in fall all fallen apples and foliage should be either buried or disposed of off property to control black spot and other fungus diseases.

    All tools should be sharp and clean. Alcohol wipes work well for cleaning blades. A reciprocating power saw is one of the best tools for pruning, and there are cordless varieties that work a treat. I like to have: Hand shears (I use #2 Felco,  through Lee Valley), Loppers  and a saw. By-pass shears are much better than anvil type. Loppers with extendable handles are useful. A ladder is useful for pruning larger old trees, however be cautious about cutting low branches off if you (or kids) might want to eventually climb the tree to pick the fruit. Other tools that are handy; Pole-pruner,  folding saw in holster, holster for pruners.
    Selecting branches for removal is the essence of pruning. Usually the first order of the day is to remove dead and diseased branches, followed by one of branches in a crossed or touching pair. Then we work towards; opening up the center of the tree, getting the height down to a reasonable level and making the tree easier to climb and easier to mow around. A bit of paint, tape or ribbon can be used to help remember which branches have been selected for removal. Pruning tar is a good idea, but not essential.

When pruning always look at how the tree is expected to grow after the cut. The last bud left on a branch will usually be where the next branch grows, so choose the direction carefully, so as not to send it back into towards the center of the tree.

 Healthy Fruit Trees

    Healthy trees are more disease resistant, so make sure the trees are watered during prolonged drought (more than 5 days), especially if they are young. Compost, organic fertilizers and especially potassium (K-the forgotten part of fertilizer, it promotes healthy stems and disease resistance) are important to fruit trees as they tend to be heavy feeders.  Fruit trees should ideally be located on sloped ground, with good air circulation around them.  At least six hours of sun is needed to promote fruit. Trees should be at least 4 meters apart. When buying fruit trees, select varieties that are known to be more disease resistant.

Sanitation is the most crucial element in fruit growing. Insects and disease over-winter in fallen fruit and leaves. The most important thing you can do to improve the quality of fruit is clean under your tree. Some people spread out a tarp or net in fall to help with the collecting. This material should not be composted anywhere near the trees (within 200 meters) as insects over-winter in the fallen fruit.
Dormant oil spraying in spring will help protect against insects and disease, especially if combined with lime sulfur.  Follow instructions carefully, and be sure the spray has time to dry properly before nightfall. Spray the ground around the tree out to the drip-line, as well as the tree.  Dormant oil that is applied too early may be scrapped off by late snowfall.
Tanglefoot is an organic insect trap that is applied on a band of paper wrapped tightly around your tree. It prevents insects from crawling up the stem of your tree. Do not apply Tanglefoot directly to tree trunk.

An integrated pest management program should be used to control insect problems. Growing insect free fruit organically can be a challenge, however with sanitation and pest management practices, spraying can be kept to a minimum.

For further information on organic fruit tree care see:

Other web sites you may find of interest:

Made in the Shade Perennials Inc.
3626 Hwy 2 RR 3 (4.5 km east of Joyceville Rd.)   Gananoque,  Ontario    K7G 2V5
Phone: (613) 382-8251      eMail: