How, when and why to prune fruit trees

How to prune fruit trees

Fruit trees need to be cut regularly to stay productive – but getting it wrong it can do more harm than good. Find out how to prune them properly.

Prune your fruit trees for healthy growth

If you have a fruit tree of your own, of course you want a bountiful harvest. A regular pruning schedule makes all the difference to the health of the tree and how much fruit it yields, and cutting back every year encourages new growth and maintains the vitality of your fruit tree, which means a healthier plant and high-quality fruit. When you prune you also open up the crown of the tree, which helps to ensure sufficient airflow and thereby prevent fungal diseases and pests.

When to prune apple and pear trees

The best time to prune varies depending on the type of fruit tree and how much growth you want. Apple and pear trees will benefit from a prune between November and April – though for the first few years you shouldn’t touch young fruit trees before spring arrives, as the wood is still very vulnerable to heavy frost.

If you want to encourage growth, you would typically prune these fruit trees during the colder months. This is when the tree moves into a dormant phase and draws nutrients back into the roots, ready to release when the growing season starts again. Late winter, before the tree starts to bud, may be an ideal time to prune because the cuts you make will heal more quickly as the spring growth surge arrives, and so your fruit trees are less likely to become infected.

It’s also possible to prune in Spring, but doing so will encourage less vigorous growth; this makes it a good choice if you have fruit trees that are already the right size for your space, as well as for formally trained fruit trees such as fan-trained cherries and espalier apples.

When to prune stone fruit trees

Fast-growing stone fruit trees, such as cherry and peach, benefit from having their seasonal prune during the warmer months. This stops the trees from growing out of control, by cutting away some of their energy reserves and therefore slowing growth. You could even prune these varieties as you harvest, simply taking off the fruit and keeping the tree in bounds at the same time.

You can prune a peach tree right up to until it flowers in April and May, while cherry trees are best cut back between June and August, after they finish fruiting.

A tree branch being cut by a woman with STIHL secateurs

Avoid giving any trees a dramatic prune during nesting season, from March to September. A gentle trim is fine unless there are birds nesting in your tree, in which case you should not prune it at all.

How to prune fruit trees: the right tools

The right tool for the job should make your work easier and must not damage the fruit tree. High-quality pruning shears will cut through branches cleanly, without causing damage that can lead to disease. If you have a lot of trees to care for, our GTA 26 garden pruner is ideal and will help you get the job done quickly.

A branch is cut with the STIHL GTA 26 cordless garden pruner, by someone wearing STIHL protective gloves

Guide to proper pruning

The extent to which you prune your fruit tree hugely influences its subsequent growth: the more you cut back your tree in winter, the more it will bud in the summer – and less pruning means less growth. The method you use is just as important.

Tips for fruit tree pruning

  1. Always make cuts close to a bud. The buds are the source of your tree’s new growth, and are where the sap that fuels that growth is most concentrated. Cutting too far from new buds risks making a wound that dries out and “blocks” the next vegetation point. You should find an outward facing bud – to encourage an open shape – and prune 1–3 cm beyond it.
  2. Try not to leave short stumps behind when you prune off branches, as dead wood provides a breeding ground for rot and mould. Always cut as close as possible to the base of a branch without damaging the main stem.
  3. If you need to remove a large branch, tackle it in stages to avoid damaging the bark or causing any untidy tearing to the wood. Last of all, carefully cut back to the main trunk.
  4. Prune to maintain the shape of your fruit trees. A tree crown should typically be pyramid-shaped, made up of a central “leader” and three to four side stems – it is particularly important to establish this shape during the first year of growth. On young fruit trees, all side stems should be cut to approximately the same height and the leader should be around 20 cm longer.
  5. Remove suckers in early summer. Fruit trees are often grafted to a rootstock to enable more successful growth than the fruit variety can manage on its own. After you prune a grafted fruit tree, you may see a lot of new shoots emerging at the base of the tree – these are suckers. They must be removed as they will steal energy from the fruiting part of your tree.
  6. Watering is important too! Particularly if they’ve suffered some frost, your fruit trees will desperately need water as they cannot absorb any from the frozen ground. New plantings, as well as older peach, nectarine, almond and apricot trees will appreciate extra water.

How to prune fruit trees: expert techniques

When you come to prune your fruit trees, you need to consider the tree itself and what you want to achieve. Do you want to trim a young tree into shape, tidy up a mature tree and keep the beautiful blossom, or rejuvenate an older tree? Different outcomes call for different techniques.

A woman wearing safety glasses and gloves stands on a wooden scaffold cutting a branch with the STIHL GTA 26 cordless garden pruner

Initial pruning: supporting the growth of newly planted trees

Right from when you plant your fruit tree, you can create the ideal conditions for its growth. Prune the root and crown when you plant to quickly guarantee strong growth: identify the leader and choose three to four other main branches that should ideally be at a 45° angle to the trunk. This is all that the tree needs to develop into a crown, so you can remove all other stems.

Formative pruning: managing growth in young trees

After planting, apply a formative approach to pruning until the tree has reached the crown height you want – this is likely to be five or six years, on average. For nicely branching stems, prune side growth and the leader by up to a third. The long-term goal is to develop the crown into a pyramid shape. Formative pruning ensures a nicely shaped mature tree.

Maintenance pruning: caring for mature trees

Mature, fruit-bearing ornamental trees need an ongoing routine of maintenance pruning, with a focus on ensuring the crown doesn’t become too dense. Remove any new growths that are too close together, as well as suckers. Vertical shoots should generally be removed to keep your tree in a pleasing shape, though on fruit trees that have a fast-growing lower layer a few vertical shoots can act as a useful diversion for the flowing sap, preventing a lot of fast, weak growth. If there are a lot of suckers, you should only remove the really thick and really thin shoots – leave the medium ones.

Regenerative pruning: revitalising older trees

Smaller fruits and a very dense crown are indications of a tree struggling as it ages. Older trees can be encouraged into a new lease of life by a generous prune, thinning the crown and removing any large branches in danger of breaking. It’s best to spread the process over two successive years.

Pruning pillar and espalier fruit trees

Pillar and espalier fruit trees are beautiful trees that have been carefully trained into narrow forms that can even thrive in pots on a small balcony. Their compact training means they need very little space but can still produce a lot of fruit. Most of these varieties only need a little bit of maintenance trimming, though they can benefit from a more thorough prune if they have long side shoots.

There are a few key principles to remember when you prune your fruit trees:

  • It’s better to be too generous when you prune than too cautious, even with young trees.
  • Be a bit more restrained with older trees, though they still need to be thinned out properly.
  • Most fruit trees can be pruned in late winter, but not if there is still heavy frost.
  • Use a sharp tool for clean cuts.
  • For older trees in particular, it is important to thin the crown so that there is enough airflow.

How to prune fruit trees: key points for success

We’ve put together the most important information for you.

Summary: how to prune fruit trees

  • The pruning process is essential for a good harvest and the health of fruit trees
  • Late winter is the best time to prune most fruit trees
  • Make sure you use a sharp, suitable tool, as well as wearing appropriate PPE for safety purposes
  • Younger trees can be more generously pruned than older ones – though these still need to be thinned regularly too

Why is it important to prune fruit trees?

It is important to prune fruit trees as it’s part of maintaining their good health and an abundant harvest. For young trees, it manages vigorous growth and establishes a productive shape, while for mature and older trees it prevents a congested crown that can lead to disease and poor productivity.

When is the best time to prune fruit trees?

The best time to prune fruit trees depends on their variety and your requirements. In most cases late winter is the perfect time, as the arrival of spring ensures that the cuts you make heal quickly and stimulates plenty of healthy new growth.

How do you prune a fruit tree?

How you prune a fruit tree depends on what you want to achieve, and as such the age of the tree. For the first few years after planting, you should prune to establish a leading stem and a few strong side shoots. In mature trees the focus is on removing old wood and keeping enough air in the crown. Older trees that are struggling may well benefit from a dramatic prune to thin their branches and give them a new lease of life.