Pruning mature fruit trees
Most fruit trees benefit from yearly pruning in late winter or early spring. Pruning when the trees are dormant or before they leaf out in the spring helps to prevent the spread of disease. It is also easier to see the branches to know what to prune. Fruit trees produce flower buds in the summer that bloom the following spring. Most flowers are produced on short, modified twigs called spurs. Spurs also produce leaves. Leaves that grow on spurs are more closely spaced than those on non-fruiting twigs. It is important to not cut the spurs when pruning since they produce the flowers that in turn produce the fruit.
To prune, first remove any dead or broken branches. Then remove diseased growth and any branches that interfere with or rub against other parts of the tree. Lastly, prune to allow sunlight to reach the interior of the tree and then prune to attain the desired shape.
Broken branches should be removed immediately. When removing dead branches, sterilize tools between cuttings in case the branches were killed by disease. Alcohol or a bleach solution can be used as a disinfectant. When removing diseased branches, make the pruning cut about six inches below the diseased area. Again, be sure to disinfect the pruners between each cut.
Rubbing branches can damage a tree's bark and wood, which allows diseases to enter and weaken the tree's branches. Simply removing one of the two branches usually eliminates the problem. Thinning the growth on branches in the center of the tree allows more light and air to circulate the interior of the tree. This is beneficial for fruit production and general tree health.
No more than one third of the total growth on the tree should be removed in one season. Heavy pruning stimulates vegetative growth and reduces or eliminates fruit production. When heavily pruned, many fruit trees produce water sprouts that grow vertically from branches. These water shoots produce little if any fruit and can be removed at any time of the year as long as pruners are sterilized before each cut.
For more information, see the following Colorado State University Extension fact sheet(s).
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Updated Tuesday, July 22, 2014