"Proper" pruning techniques for fruit trees: Opinions?

canadianplantMarch 11, 2013

I was going to take a thread and go a bit off topic with this, but I think it deserves its own thread and should be discussed.

I guess the easiest way to say it, is to ask what specific pruning style is recommended (note: By general consensus) for the following popular fruit trees in home use:

Jap Plums
Euro plums
Hybrid plums
Sour Cherry
Sweet Cherry

The real problem I seem to be finding is the old "Legit source vs personal experience" debate.

I will use the example of the thread I mentioned. The OP was reluctant to top his peach tree, because the OP read online that open center pruning is best for peaches. I chimed in with information which I have read (uni pages and books) which agreed with the consensus on the thread as well. Ill admit maybe the reasoning was off, as I am still learning, but generally it went with what others were saying as far as I can tell. I then was responded with the "experience" argument. ( I will state here that I am by no means disrespecting, talking down or ignoring his many years experience, and that I undeniably respect his opinion)

The thing is, it isnt easy to basically choose between many university sheets on the subject, and someone who has many years experience. Especially when that person has helped on this site so much.

IT also doesnt help that for some trees there are no general recommendations. Peaches are the only trees which have a large number of Uni sheets which generally recommend open center pruning for peaches. Then apples are now generally pruned as central leader rather then the old common style - open center. The same ive found said about pear but both of these have some sites recommending others.

Once you start to look up cherries and plums the information gets less reliable, and harder to find. Even worse, if you get more specific ie: Euro plums vs Jap plums vs Hybrid plums, you cant seem to find much information at all. Then on top of that, some peoples experience on those trees contradicts those few papers you can find, as well as contradiction other peoples opinions on the matter.

I would like this thread to be used to respectfully discuss this topic, the university pages/grower recommendations, gardeners personal experiences and the reasonings behind them to clarify this issue for myself, and the many people that are probably having this problem..

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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

One size doesn't fit all due to climate, rootstock, scion vigor and precocity, tendency to overset, etc. In my climate, intense sun and almost no diseases of tree or fruit, a much denser canopy is in order than in the humid east. So if you want to talk about your situation it would help to define it first.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2013 at 10:03AM
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Pruning trees and shrubs is a cultural activity in the same sense that music, language, and building houses are all cultural activities. We don't all like the same music, or speak the same language. All houses do not look alike. I do not think that there will ever be a single standard accepted method of pruning. Even so, pruning is done with purpose, and it can enhance the health of the tree. It can result in larger, high quality fruit. It can make the job of harvesting fruit go faster. Pruning is often done to make the tree look balanced or symmetrical. Pruning is also done to keep the tree clear of houses, power lines, and road signs. If a young sapling is thoughtfully pruned soon after it is planted, it is possible to avoid the growth of a weak crotch that might lead to a fallen branch when the tree has matured. So the first question is: Why am I pruning this tree?

    Bookmark   March 11, 2013 at 10:56AM
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Fruitnut - Im not asking a question persay... I guess I am asking for opinions on the situations, or what your experience tells you. I did have this issue, but i figured it out (with help of you and others on this forum :D )

Eric - I am not looking for one method for all fruit trees. IF anything I am asking if there are general pruning method for each species. Again Ill use the example of the peach. Pretty much all sources state peaches are best pruned to an open center style for numerous reasons. OF course there are exceptions where people have done otherwise, but again, im going for a general consensus, or how your personal experience says contrary to said consensus.

I will also assume, its pretty safe to say, most people want healthy, productive trees with as little work as we can manage... So lets use those as goals....

    Bookmark   March 11, 2013 at 1:46PM
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I am not very knowledgeable. (I am the OP in the other thread :).

I do agree that, for home gardens even more than orchards -- sometimes far more -- what works best is going to be climate and site specific.

I have a Melrose apple that I got for 5 bucks because the top was broken and it had a gash in the trunk. I have it in very large container at the corner of my house. It has grown into the shape I posted in the peach thread -- open center, with 3 main branches. And, for the situation, that is perfect. It wraps around the house corner, it produces the number of apples that we want in a year. It doesn't have any diseases. It is small and no doubt stunted, but for us and the site that is just the right size.

That's perhaps an extreme example, but I think extreme examples may be pretty common in urban gardens :).

    Bookmark   March 11, 2013 at 2:27PM
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alan haigh

There are some general rules. Branches should not shade other branches- whether open center or central leader. This means that each tier of a central leader needs to be a good distance from preceding one- usually 3-4' with free standing trees and each tier should be about half the length of the preceding one.

Species or varieties of species that do not volunteer much secondary branching off scaffolds need to be cut back much more than those that do. J. plums scaffolds are often slow to fill out. I'm actually not sure what is the best method to deal with this because I've always cut back to a smaller branch when such trees extend long wood out with no branches coming off it. It eventually leads to filling out but I wonder if stubbing back repeatedly during the growing season might get you there sooner.

Very vigorous growers can be managed most easily by removing all scaffold branches more than a third the diameter of the trunk at the point branch is attached to trunk. If this is done early, fruiting is quicker and a much more compact tree can be fruitfully maintained. For apples, I'm talking about the likes of Fuji, N. Spy, Mutsu, Macoun, Baldwin etc.

Cherries are vigorous growers and this applies to them as well. They are also reluctant to provide secondary branching and cutting back branches during summer can be helpful for this.

Many apple varieties bare their best fruit on second year wood, some on the tips of one year wood and some others on spurs up to about 6 years old- the books usually suggest it's all about long lived spurs with apples but this is misleading - no, it's flat out mistaken.

The least structural wood to support the most smaller fruitful wood is always the goal. This means that 3 scaffold branches for an open center tree is best if the variety generates ample secondary wood. Same for first tier of a central leader. Further economy of wood is accomplished if you remove secondary wood more than half the diam. of the scaffold when things start to get crowded.

Wood also is more efficient as it approaches horizontal as far as harvesting light, vertical branches use more wood to harvest the same light.

That's all I have for the moment, but I can also provide more organized observations if you e-mail me for articles I've written, but I haven't gotten around to putting something together that goes from species to species. My articles are somewhat applecentric but much applies to all species.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2013 at 6:55PM
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olpea(zone 6 KS)


I commented about how I prune peaches on the other thread you reference. (i.e. open center).

As I mentioned, I like open center because it's easier for me to keep the trees low and spreading. Low because it's easier to thin, pick, prune. Spreading because I have a low density planting.

I convert new planted trees as soon as possible to an open center (topping) because I like to see all the energy going into the 3-4 scaffolds as soon as possible. For peaches, scaffolds selected early in the season (pruning everything else away) will sometimes already be an 1" in diameter by season end.

The disadvantage to such an aggressive tactic for scaffold selection is that the scaffolds will want to grow more vertical without the center of the tree "pushing" them outward. This hasn't been a big disadvantage to me because it's not uncommon for me to tie scaffolds down some anyway.

Hman's approach of topping peach trees the season following planting is different than mine, but not that unusual. Some commercial growers manage their peaches that way and some top at planting like me.

Part of the difference may be length of growing season, or vigor of the new trees. Healthy peach trees around here grow so much that lower growth starts to suffer, even in the first season, if the trees are left unpruned.

Another difference is that Hman has mentioned he generally prefers to grow his trees taller for squirrel baffle, which of course is probably the best solution if managing orchards on multiple estates.
Pedestrian trees work best for me and I simply trap the squirrels out.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2013 at 7:24PM
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alan haigh


This should give you some idea of how complicated this subject becomes once you get past basics. It is only about pruning cherry trees for commercial production. I read over such literature often just to get some ideas even though I don't use the exact training methods.

One important thing to know is that as any variety comes into bearing, bearing parts of trees are cycled. With peaches you have no choice because they only grow on last years wood which is why you have to make sure lower parts of the tree receive enough light to keep generating new wood.

Most apples and pears can bear on the same wood (spurs) for years but bear bigger better fruit on younger wood. With apples, tip bearers fall into two categories- those that bear most fruit on the tips of one year shoots and much more commonly, those that bear some but reliably produce their crop on two year and older wood. Jonagold, here, bears on one year tips some years and not on others. It reliably produces on 2-year wood and older spurs, but is more consistent if you cycle 2-year wood than if you lean on older spur production.

Varieties that bear on 2-year shoots (actually the fruiting wood is 3 seasons old when you harvest) draw energy from the one-year in front of it. Cycling with varieties that produce best fruit on this wood (at least half varieties that I grow) means removing the entire piece of wood that bore fruit the previous season in favor of one year shoots and two year shoots, in about equal quantities. The 2 year shoots will have flower buds on the lower parts which had been the one year shoots the preceding year.

OK, I know this is head spinning and without visual aid is probably too much work, so I will stop, but it should give you an idea why it is difficult to find a comprehensive explanation of pruning all varieties and species of fruit trees in one book or source.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2013 at 7:33AM
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Nilla - I made this thread because I didnt want to swamp your thread and go off topic. I think I already caused a bit of confusion so (concieder this an apology, the topic is difficult enough :D )

Olpea - What you describe is pretty much exactly what ive read as "general" info pertaining to peach care.

In regards to harvestmans "delayed topping": Im basically doing this to my Toka plum. It was either let it grow and shape later, top it, and prune as an open center, or pollard it, and start again. I decided to leave it all last year, and am going to cut off the top 4 feet.

The little details dont make things easy. I think it also depends on what you have to start with (whip or feather tree, or reviving a neglected one etc).

Harvestman - I have found no real discrepancies between the broad pruning rules, as in space between scaffolds, angles of cuts, information on budding distance and the like. THis is good and makes things much easier for the novice..

I have also found no real general way to prune jap. plums either. Its even harder to find info on hybrid plums.

""Very vigorous growers can be managed most easily by removing all scaffold branches more than a third the diameter of the trunk at the point branch is attached to trunk.""

You mentioned this about my John pear. I cut of that branch off at the collar. You really notice the difference in the shape of the tree when you do this. Ill see how it grows this summer. The branches were also cut back to an outside facing bud.

Cherry pruning is just plain confusing lol. Sweet cherries isnt too bad, but I find once you get into the sour cherries, and the mongolian and nanking hybrids...

I understand that its difficult to generalize things that are so information intensive. Im past the general information point which is why I personally am so interested in this subject. I have 8 trees, 1-4 years old (I guess you can call it a micro orchard). Some are named and grafted trees, some are seedlings.

I can say so far in my minimal experience, it seems best to take a step back, and see how the tree wants to grow, then choose a pruning style from there. Ive seen some Uni pages showing different types of growth in apples, and was amazed at the diversity.

I appreciate the thoughts so far...

    Bookmark   March 12, 2013 at 11:00AM
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alan haigh

In a thread a while back Scott and I were commenting how educational it can be to wait until trees begin to flower before pruning as this shows you the state of the trees and how they bear- especially with apples.

Apples are extremely diverse in how they grow and fruit and you are right- you can only steer them so far from their natural growth habit and it is a kind of communication to figure out what to do with any given fruit tree based partially on what the tree tells you.

I don't leave every tree I prune happy about the result of my work but every single one I approach with interest. Complicated can be interesting.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2013 at 1:03PM
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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

I'm not an expert on pruning. My trees don't seem to grow much excess wood. And with few diseases of tree or fruit and intense sun, pruning here doesn't affect fruit eating quality much. Where I fall down is on renewal pruning. It needs to start well before there is an issue not after.

One thing I do have a lot of experience on is heading back pluot and Jap plums, say taking 1-2ft off a 2-5ft shoot. Doing that in summer only forces the next lower couple of buds. And they grow straight out in the direction of the branch cut back. No side buds force. To force something at an angle to the original they must be headed back dormant or very early after bud break.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2013 at 2:29PM
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You are very kind, but I felt no need for apology :). This is a great thread and I am learning a lot. Or trying to.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2013 at 3:05PM
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skyjs(z8 OR, USA)

One bit of advice I would give is to wait to prune your stone fruit until it's dry, so they won't be open to diseases. Give it a day or two of dry on each side.I ruined a Santa Rosa Plum tree that way.
John S

    Bookmark   March 12, 2013 at 11:48PM
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alan haigh

Fruitnut, I don't think cutting back J. plums when they are dormant encourages secondary growth further back on the branch- it is when it is done around bloom that changes the response somewhat. In any case, the home grower can come back during the growing season and at least select a new leader for the branch and pinch back other shoots that eminate from the cut using a couple of them for secondary wood by pinching them to subdominance.

On another pruning topic that fits into techniques, one thing I do when pruning a bearing age tree is first to asses its vigor. This is especially true of apples- but also peaches and plums to some degree- but only when their vigor is low.

If a tree is growing vigorously I will cut back to a drooping piece of wood if it's available when cutting back a branch. If a tree needs more vigor I prune to uprights and remove any drooping wood. For apples I will also aggressively prune out weak spurs and leave as many upright shoots as possible.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2013 at 6:08PM
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