Pruning Deciduous Fruit Trees

A pruned peach tree

A peach tree pruned with an open center.

Pruning is an important part of maintenance when you're growing deciduous trees in your landscape. Stone fruits (peaches, plums, and nectarines), apples, pears, and persimmons should all be pruned during their dormant season to keep them healthy and productive.

Once your trees reach maturity—usually about 3 years after planting—they should be pruned annually to enhance tree growth, reduce fruit thinning, and adjust crop load for the following season. Pruning creates strong branches and allows proper sunlight to enter the canopy.

So when should you be pruning? Deciduous fruit trees should be pruned during their dormant period, in late winter or early spring. Remember, pruning can reduce cold hardiness—pruning stimulates new growth which is susceptible to freeze damage—so be sure to prune late enough in the winter that the likelihood of extreme cold has passed.

The best place to start when talking about pruning is with the vocabulary. The vertical stem at the top of the trunk is referred to as the leader. Scaffold braches are the primary tree limbs that will form the canopy. Secondary branches that emerge from scaffold branches are called laterals or lateral branches. The growth of these laterals can come from terminal buds, at the tips of branches, or along the sides, lateral buds.

Two types of vigorous and undesirable shoot growth are water sprouts and suckers. Water sprouts grow along branches usually at pruning sites, while suckers grow from the tree's trunk or roots. These will always interfere with normal tree growth and should be pruned completely when they appear.

There are two types of cuts that you'll be making when you prune, heading cuts and thinning cuts. Heading cuts are used to control the height of your trees and involve cutting back lateral branches and terminal buds. Heading cuts should not be made on braches that are over a year old as this can stimulate the growth of water sprouts and suckers. Heading cuts can also disfigure older trees and expose large areas of bare wood to disease and insects when made on older branches.

Thinning cuts remove branches from their point of origin. Whereas heading cuts stimulate growth in a single branch, thinning cuts stimulate growth throughout the tree. Thinning cuts are used to increase air circulation and improve sun penetration.

When making any cuts, it is important to keep in mind the desired structure of your tree, which includes keeping the angles of your branches upswept. Different types of trees are pruned to different shapes; apple, persimmon, and pear trees are trained to a modified central leader system, while peaches, nectarines, and plums are trained to an open center system. So be sure to check the documents for your specific fruit tree to learn more.

Illustration of two leafless trees to show the pruning structures

An illustration of the pruning structures. On the left is the open center training system and the right is modified central leader.

Lastly, the best pruning experience is reliant on the proper tools. Be sure to use the right tool for the job and disinfect as needed.

For even more information on pruning you can check out the linked pieces below or contact your local county Extension office or Master Gardener program.

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UF/IFAS Publications

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