More pruning tips for free standing fruit trees

I realize that it is too late to apply for those of you who have completed pruning this winter-spring, but I’m not quite through pruning yet, so my mind is on my own guidelines which you may not be able to find in the literature.

Really, there isn’t much in the literature about maintaining mature trees- most info is on getting trees to that point- but eventually time spent maintaining mature trees will far exceed that on young ones.

The first thing I do when approaching a tree to prune is determine its relative vigor. Sometimes apples or pears are excessively spurred up and are not sending out adequate vegetative growth- what adequate is will take some time to learn to evaluate but bearing age trees need a fair amount of renewal growth- preferably in the form of MODERATELY vigorous annual shoots (say 12-18" long).

A healthy pear or apple usually has more of these than you need, so a lot of pruning time is spent thinning them out so shoots are close to 12" apart.

However, it is not unusual for a tree to go into an energy downward spiral where almost everything in the tree is spur-wood and there are few nice annual shoots. Then you need to reduce the spur wood by probably about 50% and, where possible, cut away all drooping wood back to an upright shoot.

Sometimes pears refuse to produce many moderate shoots and I sometimes choose to leave short pieces of thick ones rather than removing all annual growth.

Asian pears produce too much spur-wood, even when producing adequate annual wood, so I usually thin those little spurs so they are no closer on the branch than I want the fruit to be (maybe 6-9" although Fruitnut would probably suggest 12).

When peaches start to lose vigor, pruning becomes more challenging and I will go after them aggressively- pruning back branches to any reasonably vigorous annual shoots. Sometime I even resort to taping excessively tall shoots to close to horizontal just so I have decent new wood- but that is usually only partially successful (crops the following year but doesn’t maintain vigor). If you could always revitalize peaches with such tricks maybe commercial growers around here would keep them for more than 15 years. I manage some that are well over 30.

In closing, I will mention once again (as I always do) the importance of maintaining an economy of wood by removing excessive diameter wood when pruning to keep trees adequately open (open enough to throw a toy poodle through- don’t try a cat as they may scratch you before you release them:wink::wink:

Some literature mentions selecting scaffolds not more than a half or a third the diameter of the trunk (where it’s attached to the trunk) but where I find the ratio rule most useful is when thinning out excessively woody trees. Just apply the ratio rule to secondary and tertiary wood coming off the scaffolds. Remove the oversized branches and shoots first and then remove other wood if the tree is still excessively crowded.

Incidentally, another good trick for beginners is to prune a tree in late summer to figure out how open you want your trees to be and use that as an example for your dormant pruning. It is common to leave too much wood on dormant trees because they look so empty.


Alan, I find this approach very, very useful. I struggle with my over-spurred Liberty, and find I have to thin extremely heavily- after thinning each cluster down to one fruit I go back and thin the number of clusters.But I simply have too many clusters, i.e., too much spurring wood.

I think I need to go in while the tree is still dormant and take off quite a bit of the spur wood. I also want to get more vegetative growth. I’m inclined to head scaffolds back into second-third year growth and hope to get more young shoots, hoping to develop more secondary and tertiary wood.

Making sense? Thanks for any comments.

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Heading back will reduce top to root ratio, so it should, but doesn’t always induce vigor, as the roots will be sending what’s left proportionately more N and H2O.

I would also reduce the spurs on the wood that remains. If you live where there isn’t a lot of threat of hard late frost it is also useful to thin flower clusters- the sooner excessive reproduction is stopped the less energy wasted on excessive fruit.

I seem to get better results in reversing biennial bearing by actually removing flower buds than relying on thinning fruit. I’ve only compared results in my own orchard where trees never get spur bound.

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