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Pruning Overgrown Fruit Trees

There is a time and a place for pruning fruit trees. If you find your tree has grown so large, it’s hard to reach the top branches, or if the lower branches are overcrowding the ones in the middle, then now may be a good time to trim back some of those overgrown limbs. 

 It is important not to cut too much at once — remember that trees need energy reserves for next year’s growth. So don’t take more than 1/3 of any one branch off at once. And never remove more than 1/5 of all live wood from any one tree each year. But if these rules are followed, you’ll have an easier time harvesting fruit from your favourite tree!

Prune your fruit trees in the wintertime to make them more fruitful. If you wait too long, they will become overgrown and difficult to manage. Pruning is not hard, but it does take some time and patience. 

Before starting this project, you should know some things: You may want to hire a tree service or arborist to prune for you if you have multiple fruit trees of different species-it can get confusing quickly!  – Be sure to wear gloves while doing any type of pruning so that your skin doesn’t absorb harmful chemicals from pesticides.  – Keep children away from the area when cutting branches-they might be tempted to push their hand into dangerous saw blades!


Several years ago, I moved to a new property, which had many mature fruit trees in various stages of life. Some were in bad shape; others were 30 feet tall and had not been pruned for years. I decided to simply replace the bad trees with new, improved varieties that were disease resistant and semi-dwarf. 

(If you are planting a new fruit tree—this is bareroot planting season—you may want to consider a dwarf tree to avoid climbing ladders to pick fruit and do the pruning.) However, if you choose to prune an existing overgrown fruit tree in your yard, here are three methods from which to choose: 

Method one: Make mostly thinning cuts. This method assumes that the tree is structurally sound and not much taller than can be easily managed with an available ladder. Many branches will need to be removed if the tree has been neglected, especially high in the tree. Begin by removing any dead, diseased, broken or damaged limbs. 

Branches that cross or rub against each other should be pruned out, as should redundant limbs and branches that grow toward the tree’s interior. But, again, the objective is to let sunlight penetrate to the lower fruiting branches. This can be further accomplished by thinning the remaining canopy. 

Remove any branches growing beyond the height that you can reach to pick fruit. The tree will produce new vigorous shoots, especially near the top of the tree. The best time to remove these shoots is during summer pruning. Then, prune the tree to the same height annually. 

Method two: If the tree is structurally sound but taller than you can manage safely, reduce the tree height slowly over three years. Cut one-third of the excess each year once you determine how tall you desire the tree to be.

Major cuts should be made during April to reduce the chances of disease and infection at the pruning wounds. Rainfall may be less during this period, and active growth hastens the healing process. Avoid major cuts in summer, which could attract borers. In addition, exposed branches can sunburn. 

Prevent sunburn by painting exposed branches/trunk with a 50/50 mixture of white latex paint and water. Because large cuts stimulate new growth, remove or head back “waterspouts” once or twice during the summer to avoid shading lower fruitwood. Continue to thin additional branches as needed to allow some sunlight to penetrate into the canopy. 

Method three: Drastically cut back all main branches but one. This is an extreme method of reducing tree height in a single season. Not all trees are capable of re-sprouting from lower branches. Apples and pears will usually do so, as will citrus and avocados. 

However, old stone fruit trees such as peaches, cherries, apricots, and nectarines may not re-sprout effectively because lower buds may not be able to grow Tree pruning – branch removal. Heavy pruning on Peach trees. through the thick bark. 

If the tree has no main branches below 6 to 8 feet from the ground, it is better to use methods 1 or 2 above or remove the tree completely. This is because a major cut low in the tree would leave a stump which may not regrow. If you still want to try this extreme method, cut back main branches to a height that will result in a tree of the desired size. 

Branches may be cut to a length of 4 feet. Preserve and cut back lateral branches where possible, even if the laterals are small. These laterals, along with shoots arising from buds on the main branches, will form the framework for a new, smaller tree. However, a large root system remains and needs to be maintained by photosynthesis. 

This photosynthesis process, which provides food to the roots, can be accomplished by leaving one smaller main branch or a large side branch (nurse branch). Then, remove or cut back the nurse branch the following year. 

Home Gardening: Pruning to Renovate Old Fruit Trees

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Many people move to new homes where the previous owners had planted fruit trees. Unfortunately, if the owner did not properly care for the trees, the results are large, ungainly giants that are completely out of control and are an unsightly mess. 

In other instances, people move into old farmhouses where trees were planted 30 or 40 years ago. These, too, if they have been neglected, are large and difficult to maintain. But, in many cases, these old trees can be brought back to a more manageable state. 

The primary means of renovating older trees is through judicious and properly selected pruning cuts. Apple and pear trees are most easily renovated. Cherries also can be renovated, but to a lesser degree and with less success. Peaches and nectarines are not recommended for renovation and are not considered here. It is easier to cut a peach tree down and plant a new tree.

Ask Several Questions First

Several questions should be answered before an attempt is made to rejuvenate an old tree. First, is the tree worth saving? Second, did it formerly bear unique fruit that was exceptionally good for fresh eating or canning?

Is the tree structurally sound-do the trunk and main limbs seem capable of bearing a heavy load of fruit, or would they simply break when heavily laden? Is the tree in a suitable location, or does it shade the garden or interfere with lawn mowing? Is it full of insects and diseases? These are among the most important issues one should consider before proceeding.

Should I Prune Or Plant A New Tree?

Examine the trunk and butt ends of the major branches. They should be reasonably sound and free from large areas of deadwood on which the bark has died. Although much of the trunk and parts of the major limbs are nonfunctioning, they do provide structural strength to the entire tree. 

If the trunk and parts of the major limbs are hollow, efforts to save the tree will most likely be unsuccessful. Areas of branches and the trunk that appear orangish-brown and scaly also are an indication of poor health. Conversely, a thin green line indicates a healthy branch and tissue when the bark is peeled back gently with a pocketknife. 

If this examination reveals serious structural and health problems, you might be better off vegetatively propagating the tree or ordering a new one of the same variety for planting.

Pruning To Renovate An Older Fruit Tree

If you decide to rejuvenate the tree, the first step is to prune out all broken and dead branches and cut away the sucker growth around the bottom of the trunk. Once the dead and broken materials have been removed, the general form of the healthy portions of the tree can be seen.

The second step is to decide how big you want the tree to be. Realise, however, that you can never make a seedling tree into a dwarf size no matter how much you prune. A true dwarf tree can be maintained at about 6 to 10 feet tall, a semidwarf at about 10 to 16 feet, and a standard at about 16 to 20 feet tall. 

Trees that have not been pruned in many years should not be reduced to the desired height in a single pruning. Instead, to prevent excessive growth and excessive sunburn on previously shaded portions of the tree, you should plan on reducing tree height over a period of 3 years by removing no more than one-third of the tree in one season. If, for example, the tree is currently 23 feet tall and you want to bring it back to about 14 feet, lower the overall height by 3 feet per year.

To reduce tree height, selectively cut to leave branches growing more horizontal to the ground. Thin out excessive branches as well. Do not indiscriminately cut all the shoots in half. 

Do not “dehorn” the tree, as some people mistakenly do with large shade trees to reduce their height. Instead, after the desired height and limb spread have been decided, look closely at the major branches to determine where they could be cut to bring the tree into conformity.

It is important that no nitrogen be applied immediately after the initial heavy cutting. Nitrogen should not be applied because the root system under the tree is large enough to provide water, oxygen, and stored food reserves to all of the aboveground portions of the tree before any cutting was done. In effect, the first year’s pruning means that the same amount of root system supplies fewer growing points. In addition, adding more nitrogen fertiliser would stimulate excessive vegetative growth that would further complicate next year’s pruning.

The remaining portion of the tree should be protected from insects and diseases to ensure that the fruit produced will be usable and that the tree will form flower buds for next year’s crop. Unfortunately, on tall, large trees, it is often difficult to reach the tops. 

Most small hand sprayers can reach at best 10 to 12 feet up into a tree. Therefore, it will be difficult to control diseases and insects in the larger trees until they have been lowered.

In the late winter or early spring of the following year, prune the tree again before growth begins. This time, however, limit the pruning to thinning out the bearing wood. Again, take time to look carefully at the tree. 

Notice where the 1- to 4-year-old wood pieces are located—this is important because the best fruit grows only on spurs that are 2 to 3 years old. To promote better flower formation and good light penetration into the tree, separate these bearing surfaces by about 18 to 24 vertical inches from any other layers.

Another way to visualise this type of pruning is to imagine the removal of 65 to 70 percent of the bearing surface. This is accomplished primarily through thinning-out cuts, i.e., removing branches back to their point of origin; versus heading cuts where branches are cut in half similar to shearing ornamental hedges. Heading cuts result in excessive regrowth, denser canopies, and lower sunlight penetration.

During the summer after the first winter pruning, remove the numerous water sprouts that will grow on the heavily pruned tree.

Water sprouts are rapidly growing vegetative shoots that develop around pruning cuts. The method of removal is important. If you use pruning shears, you can never quite remove the entire shoot. Instead, pull the shoots off the trunk in mid-June when they are about 10 to 12 inches long. 

Keep pulling these shoots off throughout the season on the major scaffolds. The shoots can be pulled off safely as long as their bases remain tender and green. Stop when the base of the shoot becomes woody and does not easily pull off. 

Also, during this time, or from late May to early June, thin the fruit down to 1 fruit per cluster and space the clusters about 6 to 10 inches apart. This practice will ensure that the remaining fruit will attain the largest possible size.

Following the last year of rejuvenation pruning, apply a light application of fertiliser. A good rule of thumb is to apply 0.5 pounds of 5-10-10 for each inch of trunk diameter, measured 18 to 24 inches above the soil line. Apply fertiliser at any time from December until April. Scatter it under the entire limb spread of the tree, but keep it at least 6 inches away from the trunk.

Avoid making “bench cuts.” These are cuts that attempt to reduce upright growing branches and force growth to be more horizontal. However, they result in weakly structured limbs that tend to break.

Fruit trees are pruned when they are dormant, sometime in late winter. However, summer pruning can help shape the tree to reduce the shading of lower limbs. In the example below, we are pruning the trees in mid-July by removing the limbs in the upper portion of the trees that are extending out horizontally into the row. 

If you are dealing with only one tree, remove limbs that are growing out east and west. The result is that you keep the top portion of the tree narrower than the lower limbs.

How To Prune Fruit Trees In Three Simple Steps

When planting your fruit trees, you may have envisioned a Garden of Eden-type situation with an abundance of fruit and tidy looking rows of trees. But, in reality, most people end up with scraggly overgrown bushes that struggle to produce fruit. The way around this – and to keep your trees pretty and productive – is to prune them once a year.

Master gardeners may have differing opinions about the right way to prune a fruit tree, but there is a simple three-step process that works for the majority of fruit trees. You can use this method for trees that produce pome fruits (e.g. apples, pears and quince) and those that produce stone fruits (e.g. peaches, cherries, apricots and anything with a pit).

Tackling this gardening job in winter is best (because there is less foliage which makes it easier to see the condition of the branches), but you won’t cause any harm to the tree if you do this job in summer.

Step 1: Clean Up


The first thing you need to do when you begin pruning is to look for – and remove – any wood that is:

  • Dead
  • Damaged
  • Diseased

These are known as the “Three D’s” of pruning.

Once that’s done, look for sprouts at the base of the tree trunk. These sprouts, or “suckers”, originate from the rootstock rather than the fruiting tree grafting on top and will need to be cut off in line with the tree trunk (don’t leave a little stub).

Are there any suspiciously straight sprouts growing from the main branches? These vertical branches are called “water sprouts” and should be removed as well. But, again, it is important to cut these back flush with the larger limb without leaving any stubs.

Step 2: Thin Out

The next step is thinning out, which aims to allow light and air into the tree’s canopy. This boosts fruit production and reduces the tree’s vulnerability to pests and diseases.

Remove any branches that:

  • Grow downward
  • Grow towards the centre of the tree
  • Cross paths with another branch

Once you’ve removed these branches, take a step back from the tree and take a look. Are the branches evenly spaced and fanning out from the centre?

If there are still spots where branches are competing with each other, find out whether any branches that are growing from the same crotch at a narrow-angle. Alternatively, you could find two branches growing parallel to each other from different sources.

In this scenario, you want to keep the branch with the healthiest appearance and best crotch angle (roughly the 2 o’clock or 10 o’clock angle from the centre of the tree). Wider angles can break when laden with fruit, and narrower angles lead to bushy growth and fruit that is too high to pick.

Next, continue to thin the tree until there is a good 15 to 30 centimetres of air space around every branch. The smaller the branches are, the closer they can be to each other.

As with your clean-up cuts, all thinning cuts should be made flush to the branch.

Step 3: Head Back

Finally, the easiest step: pruning the outermost growth of the tree. Known as “heading back,” you can think of this as giving the tree haircut. Not only will it keep the tree looking tidy, but it will help the branches grow strong and thick rather than thin and weak.

All you have to do is cut off 20 to 30 percent of last year’s growth. Depending on the tree, this could be anywhere between 5centimetres to 1.2 metres back from the tip of each branch.

Unlike the previous steps, this time, the cuts will be made partway into each branch. It’s important to prune each branch back to a point half a centimetre above a bud that faces the direction you want that branch to grow in the coming year. 

If there is another branch close by on the left, prune back the plant to a bud on the right side of the branch. Heading back stops the tree’s branches from snapping under the weight of fruit and will also activate its growth hormones, resulting in an abundant harvest!

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