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How to prune a fruit tree

Valued Contributor

Difficulty: Beginner

The main objective in pruning fruit trees is to encourage flowering and fruiting. Different types of fruits require differing techniques. Some flower and fruit on last season’s laterals (shoots) while others bear their crops on permanent or semi-permanent "spurs". Knowing how the trees you’re growing produce their crops is key to how they should be pruned.


Complete books have been written on fruit tree pruning – it can be quite a complex topic.  But don’t let that put you off picking up the secateurs because, over a period of years, unpruned trees will produce fewer and fewer flowers and fruit.


A few simple tips will get you started and keep your trees growing and flowering well, so you can enjoy fresh fruits direct from the garden.


Step 1

Fruit trees are susceptible to a range of diseases that can be spread from tree-to-tree and also by airborne spores that can enter through damaged or torn bark and wood.


Secateurs, loppers and pruning saw must be sharp, so they cut cleanly, and free of debris. Dip the blades in disinfectant or use a disinfectant wipe before you start each plant to remove traces of sap.


1. Dip blades in disinfectant.JPG

Step 2

Learn by observation how each of your trees produces its flowers and fruits. The following is a guide:

  • Apples and pears – most varieties flower and fruit on short ‘spurs’ of two-year-old wood or older (spur-bearing). Some may also crop on the tips of short lateral growths as well as spurs (tip bearing).
  • Peaches and nectarines - both flower and fruit on one-year-old wood. Shorten last year’s laterals to encourage new laterals in the following Spring. Cut to a triple that includes flower and leaf buds.
  • Apricots – fruits are produced on one-year-old branches and semi-permanent sprigs. Flower buds are usually in clusters that will include at least one leaf bud.
  • Plums – while they will fruit on year-old wood, most fruit is produced on two-year-old wood and permanent spurs.
  • Cherries – fruits are usually produced on one-year-old wood and also on tips of fruiting spurs. Established trees need only light maintenance pruning to remove damaged or crossing branches.
  • Almonds – crops are produced on semi-permanent spurs and short shoots, sometimes known as sprigs.
  • Less common but increasingly popular fruit and nut trees like quince, mulberry, persimmon, fig, walnut and chestnut need little pruning once the basic framework has been formed. Occasional shortening of laterals to encourage new growth is recommended.


In the first couple of years after planting, prune to develop the basic frame of the tree. After the second or third season, change your method to promotion of fruiting wood.


2.1 Apple fruiting spurs.jpg  2.2 Nectarine triple bud.jpg

Step 3

Most pruning is done in Winter while trees are dormant. However, apricots should be pruned in late Autumn. They are susceptible to fungal and bacterial diseases. Prune on a sunny or windy day so the cuts will dry and seal over quickly, minimising the risk of infection.


For all your fruit tree pruning, check each tree for diseased or mummified fruits, damaged or broken branches and spindly laterals that are not likely to be useful in the future. Remove them all cleanly. Collect diseased fruits and put them into the household rubbish. If left on the ground or composted, there is a risk of fungal spores and bacteria spreading infection.


3.1 Diseased fruit.jpg  3.2 Damaged tree.jpg

Step 4

When you are familiar with where your trees will produce flowers – lateral buds, terminal buds or spurs – you can prune accordingly. Always cut cleanly just above a bud or spur and slope the cut away from the bud or spur.


There are no hard and fast rules, although there are basic guidelines you should follow. There is plenty of good information available in books and on the web. Just make sure to try to choose local sources of information.


One point to keep in mind: Don’t cut back to old wood. Always cut to live buds or spurs. Follow that tip and the worst you can do is cut off potential fruiting wood, reducing next season’s crop.


While Winter (when trees are dormant) is the preferred pruning time for most fruits (except apricots) if you are really at a loss as to where fruits will grow, then delay pruning until your trees are in flower.


4. Sloping cut.jpg


Step 5

When you think you have finished each tree, stand back and run a critical eye over it. If it looks OK and you’re happy then don’t prune any more.  If there is still weak or spindly growth, laterals crossing one another and tall laterals heading for the sky, then make the necessary adjustments.


Gather up all the prunings from under trees and either mulch them up and add them to the compost or put them in the green waste bin for recycling.


Clean your tools and store them out of the weather until they are next needed.


5. Apple- prune leader for spurs.jpg


  • Container of diluted household disinfectant (1 cap or 30 ml approx in 500ml of water) OR disinfectant wipes


  • Gardening gloves
  • Secateurs (by-pass blades rather than anvil style, for cleaner cuts)
  • Pruning saw
  • Loppers (for larger branches only)


1. Dip blades in disinfectant.JPG

2.1 Apple fruiting spurs.jpg

2.2 Nectarine triple bud.jpg

3.1 Diseased fruit.jpg

3.2 Damaged tree.jpg

4. Sloping cut.jpg

5. Apple- prune leader for spurs.jpg

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