Pruning Fruit Trees
by Julia Frisbie
posted February 17, 2022
If your garden includes fruit and nut trees, now’s the time to prune them. This is a task for January and February before the sap rises.
Different people use different techniques, and I can’t vouch for their relative efficacy, but I can share what I do. I learned how from Paul Gautschi at his “Back to Eden” garden in Sequim, WA. He worked as an arborist for many years, and was heavily influenced by Japanese pruning techniques. Because he lives with a disability that makes it hard to climb a ladder, he also removes almost all upward-pointing branches to keep his fruit trees at easy picking height. What I learned from him is: prune from the bottom up and the inside out.
Start at the soil line and remove any suckers that are coming up from the rootstock around the trunk of the tree. Then move your eyes up the trunk of the tree until you reach the first major branch. Move your eyes along that lowest branch from the inside out:
As you move your eyes systematically through the tree, remove any branches with problems:
1. No branches are allowed to come off the top edge of the main branch.
2. No branches are allowed to point straight up, straight down, or back towards the center of the tree.
3. No branches are allowed to stay if they look diseased.
Making these deliberations is harder at first, and easier the more you do it. If you’re an external processor like me, working with a buddy can help build confidence, because you can discuss potential cuts together before doing them.
When you remove a branch, make the cut right where a fold of the bark seems to outline it, because that outline is where the bark will fold over and grow together to eventually cover the cut.
At the growing tip of any branch you’re going to keep, make a diagonal cut just above a bud that’s pointing in a good direction. This stimulates the tree to put its energy there, and promotes growth in the direction that you prefer.
Those are the basics. If you work from the bottom up and the inside out, by the time you reach the outside point of the top branch, you will have systematically addressed every part of the tree.
At that point I like to step back, stretch, squint, and take another look at the tree as a whole after I’m finished with this first pass. I do a final check for:
Friction. When branches criss-cross and rub against each other over time, it can wound the bark and promote disease. I remove one or both of the rubbing branches.
Access. If a branch is bound to get in my way while I’m harvesting, I remove it.
Symmetry. Does looking at it make me happy? I remove or shorten anything that looks weird. (It’s okay to skip this step while you’re learning how to prune. The more you do it, the stronger your opinions will become. If you don’t have an opinion, don’t make an optional cut.)
Use sharp tools. Cleaner cuts heal faster.
Always sanitize your blades between trees, and after cutting any wood that looks diseased. A ten-second soak in a little bucket of bleach water will do the trick.
Don’t remove more than a third of the tree at a time; pruning is a multi-year project, and you don’t want to shock your trees. If they haven’t been pruned in years and there are a lot of problems, you may need to prioritize and address some of the issues in later years. For example, you might remove only straight-up branches (called suckers) the first year, and deal with everything else later. Or you might focus on improving access the first year by sawing off a few main branches that prevent you from getting into the center of the tree to harvest, and then focus on smaller branches in subsequent years.
Beware: consistent pruning will boost your tree’s health and productivity, potentially overwhelming you with bumper crops year after year! Drying, canning, and freezing are all good strategies to use in the summer when you can’t keep up with the harvest, but my favorite place to store a surplus is in the bellies of my friends and neighbors, and in Transition Fidalgo’s “share the bounty” produce stands. After all, plants teach us to make extra and give it away.
HI Julia! I think this is the best pruning advice Ive ever read! Its simple and easy to understand. Great photos too! Another tip I learned was to carry a small spray bottle of alcohol to spray on pruners between trees. We all probably have them handy now since Covid. I save little bottles from other stuff like perfume or mouth spray. I think you can get that stuff at the Skagit Coop too. THANK YOU THANK YOU for your advice!
YES Laurie, you’re right, rubbing alcohol works as a disinfectant too, and Richard Houghton mentioned to me recently that it’s much easier on your blades than bleach. I love your idea of carrying around a spray bottle… much easier than a bucket of bleach water! I’ll do that next year!
This is fantastic, I’ve got trees I need to do and its a little scary. This should give me the right guideline to get started. Thank you !!!
You’re so welcome, good luck with your trees Robyn!
Great post, Julia, and just in time! I’m hoping to prune this weekend but I see we have a good chance of below-freezing temps on Monday and Tuesday night. Still okay to prune now, or better to wait till things warm up a bit next week?
Thanks so much for sharing your experience. The photos are extremely helpful.
Evelyn, as far as I know there’s no problem pruning when it’s cold outside. We tend to do our trees on sunny days in January, which are inevitably followed by freezing temps overnight. The trees are dormant right now, so I don’t think it makes much of a difference to them. So… go for it!
Pruning when it’s warmer is something I don’t understand as well. I’ve had several experienced arborist-type friends mention summer pruning, but I’ve never tried that and can’t vouch for it.
I agree, great photos! Thanks, Julia.