Pruning Fruit Trees
Pruning is more than just a technique to improve the growth of a tree, it is an art.
Pruning is more than just a technique to improve the growth of a tree, it is an art. Get it right from the start and you will be rewarded with an excellent crop of fruit for years to come. The important factor is maintaining a balance between vegetative growth and fruit growth. Pruning allows the tree to focus its nutrients on growing fruit.
It is very important in the early years of a tree’s life, to begin pruning and training immediately in order to manage its growth, removing any dead or diseased elements and encourage fruit buds to develop. It trains the fruit tree from an early age to grow in a prescribed way.
Different varieties of fruit require varying levels of pruning. Fruit trees such as apples and cherries are slightly trickier, they require seasonal pruning to ensure that they remain productive and produce a good crop of fruit the following season. Knowing what to prune is more difficult to establish as some branches are older than others before they produce fruit. Grapes and kiwis are simpler, and require more vigorous cutting as they produce seasonal fruit.
The fruit tree type is not the only defining factor in deciding the method and frequency of pruning, the variety of that fruit, the way the land is maintained, the water availability and the soil type are also influencing factors.
Visualise the final tree before training and pruning commences
Identify in your mind what you would like the fruit final tree to look like before commencing pruning and training. Buying a sapling that is 1-2 years old, ready to be planted and already carefully pruned into a desired shape, makes pruning a lot easier. The fruit tree has had formative training, a framework is in place and the pruning is primarily to maintain its shape.
In the first formative years of a fruit tree’s life, creating a framework with a strong primary branch is essential. This primary branch is pruned to between 40cm and 1.5m in its first year. The distance pruned on this key branch will determine the final shape of the fruit tree.
Typical fruit tree shapes
Whether you have a small orchard in the garden or an allotment for fruit trees, there are three key shapes of fruit tree; spreading, vase-shaped or pyramid.
Training a spreading-shaped fruit tree
Spreading or horizontal shaped trees, such as palm, grow wide and require horizontal pole and wire support in the early years. Many types of fruit tree grow in this shape, including apples, pears, plums and persimmons. The sapling will be planted in late winter and will have a minimum height of 30cm from the ground. The following spring, three vigorous branches should be chosen which will create the framework for this tree.
Two of the primary branches should be fixed to horizontal wires, training the tree for future growth and creating a strong framework. As the tree grows, additional support is required every 50cm to continue establishing this framework. In just 5-6 years, the tree’s spreading framework takes shape with one strong primary vertical stem from which, extended horizontal branches depart.
Training a vase-shaped fruit tree
Vase-shaped trees are narrow at the base and wide at the top, it is a very natural shape. Initially, the tree is trained using the same steps as a spreading-shaped tree, however, instead select 3-5 vigorous branches. Use training wires and pole support to create an inverted cone shape with the branches.
This shape of fruit tree suits many varieties of apple, fig and plum. It is easy to create and maintain. The first step is establishing the length of your framework which can vary from 30cm to 1m stem to outer branch. The sapling should be cut after planting.
Training a pyramid-shaped fruit tree
A pyramid shape fruit tree is created when the tree receives minimum training. This shape is suitable for some apple, pear and peach varieties. Trained initially in a pot, the branches are allowed to grow naturally, removing any interior branches to increase the amount of light getting to the tree.
In some cases, to avoid building a framework, the pyramid fruit trees are planted close together to create a natural support.