Fruit tree pruning instructions  

    Learn how to prune fruit trees

 These  fruit tree pruning instructions cover basic pruningapple tree pruning theorys and techniques. For both young and mature  fruit trees. In subsequent chapters we will discuss the particulars of apples, pears and peaches.

Pruning fruit trees
is done to keep your trees healthy and easy to work in while pruning and gathering a bountiful harvest of large fruit.

Pruning is easy once you get the hang of it but a challenge to teach through the written word even with pictures.  I will do my best to give you a start with basic  directions. If you have more detailed questions feel free to go to my ask a question page.


    If you know what you are looking for click ahead to read details on open center, modified leader , or central leader pruning systems. Types of pruning cuts, older trees,  pruning tools and  glossary  for fruit tree pruning instructions.

Pruning fruit trees is an art and a science. First look at the trees with an artistic eye.

Before you start to prune walk around your tree and view it from all angles and get an eye for what you would like your tree  to look like and what general shaping ideas you have for the tree.  Keep in mind that your trees are living creations and the cuts you make today will govern its shape for the years to come. This is especially true of young trees in their formative stages.

      Think openness, sun, large fruit and good ladder sets


General  fruit tree  pruning instructions:

There are three basic types of pruning.

Open center, Modified central leader and                           Central leader

 It is important to choose your pruning system when you first plant your fruit tree as the first cuts are very formative. If you are pruning an established tree prune to the established system. 

Open center pruning open center pruning

Open center pruning is primarily used for stone fruits such as peachs, nectarines and apricots. It can also be used for apples, cherries,  and plums.

First Year fruit tree pruning instructions

 When you first plant the tree prune back the roots slightly and then prune back the "maiden whip" to 3-5 feet off the ground depending on where you want your tree to branch. Prune to a bud with two buds below it. I like to start my tree forking at 4 feet so that the lower branches are easy to get under with a mower.  We also let our cow in our mature orchard and she is hard on the lower branches.
  If you buy your trees from some nurseries they prune them  usually at about 3 feet and they usually have side branches, these are called "feathered maidens and should be pruned back to 3 or 4 strong shoots about 3 or 4 feet from the ground. Side shoots should be shortened by two thirds of their length to an upward or outward facing bud. Lower shoots should be removed flush with the stem. If this is the case and you want them to start taller  just save the best leader and prune it to start branching higher up.
As the tree grows prune each winter to develop a strong scaffolding (main branches) and fruiting wood. Always think of a large tree with ladder sets and make sure your main scaffolding will allow for

Second year
 Choosing the main scaffolding branches
                                               The  second year remove all but three or four main branches that are six to eight inches apart, growing from the trunk at wide angles, and spaced evenly around the trunk. These will be your main scaffolding branches.

Third and forth Year
Now that you have the main scaffolding branches you want to start heading back. The pink colored parts of the tree show growth in the previous year, this should not be pruned. The black colored side shoots should all be pruned by a third.

Fifth year and beyond                                                                        

Pruning done during the first three years is basically the same for all open center trees. Now you must start using pruning methods specific for the species of fruit. In apples and pears, promote fruiting with spur pruning techniques as apple trees fruit on second year and older wood.  In peaches you will need to prune to develop new wood as peaches fruit on last years wood. Cherries need very little pruning after their basic shape is developed. 

Central leader pruning is used for apple and pear trees and often used for nut trees.

pruning central leaderCentral leader systems produces a tree that has a pyramid shape. The central leader system has one main upright trunk which is called the leader. Branching begins on the leader 30-48 inches above the ground. If you are not going to mow or work beneath your trees you can  start the branches as low as 24 inches above the ground.

First Year                                                                            
 If your tree is just a "maiden" tree  also called a "whip" cut the trunk to 24 to 48 inches which will stimulate branches to grow along the trunk with the up most bud becoming the central leader.  If it is a  "feathered maiden" develop your first scaffolding branches often called a “whorl”. Select  3 to 4 branches with good crotches, spaced uniformly around the trunk, not directly across from or above one another. 

Second and third  years                                                     Above the first scaffold whorl, leave an area of 18 to 24  inches without any branches to allow light into the center of the tree. Then follow the first set of scaffolding branches with another set of scaffolding branches. Alternating scaffold whorls with 18 to 24 inch openings for light and air up the leader to the desired maximum tree height. 

 Forth and fifth year to maturity                                              Prune back the main leader shoot, but keep it as the highest part of the tree to maintain your pyramid shape. Keep that shape by pruning out water sprouts and any crossing, diseased, or unwanted branches. Head back all vigorous growth by 1/3 of the new growth. Try to keep the lower branches longer than the upper ones to maintain the pyramid shape.

Modified Central Leader is used for apples, pears and                                               nut trees

pruning modified central leader

The Modified Central Leader system  has a main leader trunk and three or four lateral branches that are also given equal importance so these scaffolding branches are about the same size as the central leader. This tree is started at about 4 feet to allow for mowing. 

First Year                                                                           

Trees trained to the modified central leader system usually have five to seven well-spaced scaffold limbs 8" to 12" apart on the central leader radiating from the tree axis in different directions.  

Pruning starts out very similar to a Central leader system. Cut the "whip"  to 24 to 48 inches which will stimulate branches to grow along the trunk with the up most bud becoming the leader.
 If it is a  "feathered maiden" develop your first scaffolding branches  Select  3 to 4 branches with good crotches, spaced uniformly around the trunk, not directly across from or above one another. Make sure crotches have a wide angle 45 degrees is best.

Second and third  years

Select scaffold branches that are at different heights on the trunk, make sure the branches that you select have good crotches that are not at a steep angle. Head back vigorous new growth by a third and cut out all suckers. Some heading-back cuts to scaffold limbs are also necessary during the first few years to encourage branching and fruit spur development. As trees begin to bear fruit, use thinning cuts and heading-back cuts to side laterals. 

 Forth and fifth year to maturity

Once five to seven scaffold limbs have developed, dormant pruning consists primarily of selective removal of crowded or crossing branches, water sprouts, root suckers, and other growth which interferes with light penetration and air movement in the tree canopy. Sometimes it is necessary to remove some of the weaker growth from the interior of the tree.                                                                                                                    Shoot and limb spreading which encourages wide crotch angles will also help maintain leader dominance and promote fruiting at an earlier age. If more scaffold limbs are needed, head back the central leader about 20" above the highest permanent lateral shoot. This will stimulate the development of lateral shoots from which additional scaffold limbs will develop. Continue to select laterals for scaffold limb development as described previously. After five to seven properly positioned scaffold limbs have been selected, continue to remove shoots which compete with the central leader during each dormant pruning. 

In subsequent years, prune the tree to grow into a pyramid shape. Keep your tree to a reasonable height that you can reach from a ladder.

Proper pruning 

Proper pruning is most essential to insure quick starting and vigorous growth, correct shape, long life and big crops of fruits and flowers. Proper pruning of both tops and roots usually determines success or failure.

Pruning the roots when planting is just as necessary as pruning the tops. The plant is nourished by little feeder roots that start from the ends of the old roots. These little feeder roots will not develop properly unless the ends of the roots are pruned.This is often done at the nursery if you buy your trees so ask or look at the roots before further pruning. 

Summer Pruning
In some cases summer pruning is appropriate, in general it slows down growth where dormant pruning encourages growth. You can use summer pruning to eliminate competing shoots where dormant heading cuts which were made (on the central leader and laterals) in the first year. Summer is also the optimal time to remove unwanted side shoots and excessive growth. All laterals should have a wide branch angle, and spreading of lateral branches is essential for many varieties. Personally I do very little summer pruning.

Older unpruned or neglected trees

Unpruned trees are hard to work in and tend to produce crops of small, worthless fruit. The fruit is often damaged by pests and diseases, and much of the crop is out of reach at the top of the tree. Pruning is therefore carried out to achieve a balance between shoot growth, ladder sets and fruit production.

It can be quite the job to rejuvenate and bring an old fruit tree back into good production and easy picking. But it is worth it. You will have to do some radical pruning especially if the only recent pruning was done by bears. Don't try to do it all in one year, it will be to much for the tree and probably you too. 


Remove broken or diseased branches and crossing limbs

Any branches growing inward to the tree's center and any growing vertically or straight down.

Thin out enough new growth to allow light to filter into the canopy when the tree has leafed out so the fruit can ripen properly.

Shorten any branches that are too long to avoid over extended growth.

Shape tree evenly and remember apples flower and fruit on old wood, so head back new growth to direct energy back into the flowers and fruit
. Remember to thin your fruit and you can also thin the fruit spurs if they are to thick.

You may have to do some major cuts to get back to
3 to 5 lower scaffold branches with good crotch angles and spaced around the tree. Limbs with poor angles, and excess scaffold limbs, should be removed at their base.  You  may also want to cut the top of major branches if the tree has out grown ladder heights. If you are at the top of your ladder and you can't reach the fruit I suggest cutting the tree back to a manageable height. I often use a small chain saw for these major cuts. It is essential that you make all large cuts clean and good. To make clean cuts, cut the branch once a foot from the base to relieve all the weight which will avoid tearing of the bark, then do a careful cut flush with the trunk so that it will heal. You may want to make your first cut with a chain saw and your second cut with a hand saw. You can put tar or other kinds of sealants on the cuts but I find that a good clean cut flush with the trunk heals better on its own. Make sure the cut is not flat and has an angle so that no water will collect on it as that is where rot will start. You may need to remove as much as 75% of  a really old overgrown tree. This should be done over a three year period.
Renewal pruning is a useful technique for older or neglected trees. It takes advantage of the tendency of apples and pears to produce flower buds on unpruned two year old wood. Leave strong lateral branches on the outer parts of the tree unpruned during the first year. During the second growing season, these laterals will send out new vegetative growth from the tip. The rest of the buds from below that point will become flower buds. The following winter, cut back these lateral branch to the topmost flower bud. The lateral will then flower and fruit that year. After fruiting, retain this lateral as an elongated spur, or cut it back to one inch from the base to stimulate the formation of a new lateral branch to repeat the cycle.

Types of pruning cuts

Thinning Cuts
are used to remove an entire shoot or branch back to a lateral or scaffolding branch.

Heading Cuts are used to remove 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.

Large cuts also known as bench cuts are used to remove vigorous, upright shoots back to side branches that are outward growing. Bench cuts are used to open up the center of the tree. They may also be used to take out excessive scaffolding branches left by improper pruning of young trees.  

Careful pruning cuts will help the tree to heal quickly. Pruning cuts should be flush with the adjacent branch without leaving stubs. Also, when large horizontal cuts are made, they should be slightly angled so that water does not set on the cut surface as this will cause rotting and disease.  

Some people like to use tar or other compounds to close the wounds but I have found that a good clean cut flush with the base heals best on its own.

Tools of the trade

Smooth, clean pruning cuts heal quickly and minimize the likelihood of rot and disease. Before making any cuts, become familiar with the various types of pruning equipment, their uses and limitations, and the basics of equipment maintenance. Be sure your equipment is properly adjusted, sharp and in good working order.

Pruning tools for all your pruning needs. 

Glossary of pruning terms

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Good pruning brings abundant fruit

.victory garden pruning

  Tools of the trade

 Pruning tools

Hand Pruners are one of your main pruning tools used for heading back, and most branches under 1/2 inch in diameter 


FELCO: Pruner No 11

felco pruner

I really like to use felcos as they are dependable, easy to use and have replacement parts.
FELCO: Pruning Saw No. 600

pruning saw


A  small pruning saw is used for all cuts too big for a loper. Cuts  3/4 inch and larger should be cut with a pruning saw.  

These little saws are sharp and can  cut large branches but it is easier to use a bigger pruning saw or even a small chain saw if you have a lot of large cuts to make.


  Hand Garden Tools

hand garden tools

Fruit  tree Pruning instructions


Backfill: Replacing soil and adding amendments to refill a hole around roots.
Bare root:
Plants sold without a ball of soil around the roots.
Branch: A stem that is attached to another larger stem, leader or trunk.
That which develops from a leaf axil, twig tip, apex of the tree, or from beneath the bark, and develop into a flower, twig or leaves.
Canopy: The branches and leaves at the top of the tree also known as the crown of the tree.

Central leader:  A leader that’s outstanding amongst several leaders.
Crotch: Top of the union or merging of two branches, or branch and trunk, or two leaders.

Crown: Portion of the tree above ground comprised of all the branches and foliage.
Decay: Deterioration of wood tissue by fungus and bacteria.

Deciduous: Plants or trees that drop leaves, needles or foliage in winter.

Dieback: When ends of twig or branches defoliate, decline and die back to remaining live plant parts.

Dormant: A state of rest, when it gets cold fruit trees loose their leaves and rest for the winter. This is the time for most pruning as the sap is low.

Drip line: The perimeter or boundary of the canopy at ground level.
Drop cut: The second handsaw, or chainsaw, cut in the process of a 3-cut branch removal procedure.
Hand pruners: A small tool designed for one-handed pruning cuts of small  branches.
Hardening off: Putting plants or trees out in the weather in a sheltered location in their pots before planting them in the soil.

Hardiness: The ability to withstand temperature extremes usually used in referring to frost dates.

Hardiness zone: Sections of a country, states or regions designated or assigned a number or letter or both, indicating the high and low temperatures as known from years in the past.

Heading back: Pruning shoots or twigs by 1/4 to 1/2 or so.

Healed in: Burying the roots of your new bare root trees in compost or loose soil until you have time to plant them.
Heartwood: The inner wood of a trunk.
Lateral: A side branch or twig extending from another branch.
Lateral bud: Vegetative buds on sides of twigs or branches.
Lateral root: Roots extending outward off main or buttress roots.

Leader: A main terminal leader of the tree. There can be two or more in which case the tree is a modified central leader leader tree.
Lopper: A pruning tool with two handles which cuts with a scissor-like action. This is a “hand-tool” but takes two hands.

Mature height: The tallest anticipated height a tree is expected to reach.

Native: A species that historically occurred or naturalized in a geographic region as opposed to being introduced.
Node: The point of attachment of leaves and axillary buds.

Permanent branch:
A branch that is intended to be left in place for the permanent branch structure of a tree.

PH: measure of acidity in soil or mulch.

Pole pruner: Same as “extension pruner”. These can also be  a lopper with extending handles.  
Pole saw – A saw on a pole.

Pruning: Removal of  limbs to direct the growth of a tree.
Restoration: Pruning to bring a tree’s form, branch structure or health to an improved state.

Root pruning: Cutting roots when transplanting, cut the tips of the roots so they fit better in the planting hole and to stimulate small rootlet growth. This is often done at the nursery before buying.
Scabbard: A sheath for a pruning saw or hand pruners.
 Scaffold limb:
Permanently planned and retained, larger limbs of the tree.

Scion wood: Is usually used for grafting.
A detached shoot or cutting with buds, used to insert in another plant or tree or on a root stock for propagation.
Soil analysis: The results of a chemical test that determines soil pH, and nutrient content including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as other minerals.

Stress: A condition of a tree that means it’s having a hard time and is not in a state of premium or reasonable growth.
Subordinate: Pruning a branch or leader to reduce it’s domination in relation to nearby branches and leaders.
Sucker: A shoot originating from a root or lower trunk.
 Sprouts and water sprouts are shoots from up above the base of the trunk.
Sun scald: Damage to tissue from too much exposure to sun.

Terminal bud: The bud at the apex of a stem -
the bud at the main central leader tip.
Thinning: A selective pruning or thinning of stems and branches to increase air, moisture, or light penetration.

Topping: Non-selective, “crew-cut” or severe style cutting of, and across the top of the tree, usually leaving large cross-cut stubs.
Moving a tree or shrub from one location to another.

Transplant shock:  The shock a tree or plant goes through at transplanting time.

Tree wrap: Material wrapped around tree trunks or limbs to protect from sunburn or for protection during transportation.
Trunk: The lowest base stem that supports the tree - the link between the roots below, and the canopy above.

Undercut: An undercut is the first of 3 cuts in the multiple 3 cut system to remove a branch without tearing bark. The undercut, and top cut are both made a little way out from the branch collar and trunk.
Water sprout: A vertical shoot from a branch, or upper trunk, that is usually fairly speedy growing compared to most other branches.

Weak crotch: When 2 or more branches or leaders meet at a union which is weak - in most cases a weak “V” shaped crotch or union.
Wound dressing: A coating or paint originally made to coat pruning cuts or wounds, proven to cause acceleration of decay. Not recommended except in isolated specific cases for control of insect or disease on a few species of trees.