Fruit Tree Pruning

16 February 2022

Fruit trees can be pruned from the middle of February through March. Just be sure the wood is not frozen. Select a decent day when you won’t get frostbite and the ground is stable.

One reason for pruning in the winter is that insects have not yet started to grow. That means the bare edge of the limb or tree will have a chance to harden over and seal before the bugs come out to play and infest. Don’t cover the cuts with anything. They will heal and harden naturally without any problems.

The initial information in this piece is for mature trees, not new or saplings. Young trees will be addressed at the end of the article.

In general

  • Always cut back to another branch or bud. Do not leave a stub.
  • Do not prune any more than 25% of the total tree.
  • Remove broken, damaged, or diseased branches.
  • Look for narrow angles between branches. These are weak points and can easily break in storms. Choose one side and remove it.
  • Remove all suckers. Suckers are branches that grow straight up and can start at the trunk or from major branches.
  • Remove one of any branches that cross and rub against each other.
  • Cut back or remove low hanging branches that interfere with mowing or harvesting.
  • Thin excessive branches in the center part of the tree.

Peach or Nectarine

These varieties will probably need more attention than other fruit trees because peaches bear fruit on growth from the previous year. If you don’t prune, the fruit will set further from the center of the tree. That means you will have branches that are very heavy on the ends and will tend to break from the trunk.

Prune long branches back to a shorter side branch.


Without regular pruning, apple trees can become overgrown and more likely to be damaged by ice storms. Additionally, if you don’t prune regularly, they will bear fruit biennially rather than annually. That means that you will have a huge crop one year and none the next. The tree may need to be pruned as well as thinned. Your goal should be an apple about every six inches.


Cherry, Pear, and Plum

You’re in luck. No heavy pruning needed here. Just remove any branches that are or will cause some problems.

Young Fruit Trees

Do not prune the year of planting unless necessary to keep the height to 36 inches and if there are no side branches. If there are side branches, this will allow the maximum number of leaves to aid in growth.

Apple, apricot, sweet cherry, plum, and pears will need to be trained to a single or central leader. A center branch needs to be dominant and grow straight upward.

Peach and nectarine trees need to be pruned to a vase-like pattern and no central leader.

Scaffold branches are the heaviest limbs that create the structure of the tree. These should be no lower than 18 inches from the ground. They should form wide angles (about 60 to 80 degrees) with the trunk to prevent breaking with high winds or ice loads. For the best balance be sure the scaffold branches are distributed on all sides of the tree. They should be about 6 to 10 inches apart but no branch directly opposite or below another.

For assistance or more information, contact an arborist that specializes in fruit trees.

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