Pruning Young Fruit Trees

 Pruning young fruit trees can be a mystery and maybe a little scary for you if you don’t have any direction or anyone to show you how to do it. I’m going to help you get past all of that so you can go out into your landscape with some confidence and do it yourself.

Pruning Young Fruit Trees

Pruning Young Fruit Trees

I’m not sure how big your tree is but you came here to learn about pruning young fruit trees, so lets cover a few different scenarios.

Scenario #1

You may have just purchased what they call a whip. This thing is going to look like a stick with roots on it, considered (bare root). You most likely purchased this from a mail order catalog or online. It might have a few small branches here and there but it’s pretty much just a stick. After you get that thing in the ground you are going to take about six inches off the top with a pair of bypass pruning shears. This will encourage new branches to form, and in a year or two your stick will begin to look a lot more like a tree.

Scenario #2

You just bought your young tree from a nursery or big box store. It’s either in a large plastic pot or balled (roots tied up in burlap). These trees can be just a few feet tall and similar to the whip described above but most of the time they are around six foot tall. The nursery these came from most likely did some work with these trees. But read on as there are more things to consider.

Scenario #3

You already have a young fruit tree in your yard. You are wondering if you should do something to get it to produce the fruit you want. The short answer is yes. If you just let it go its going to grow just like it would naturally in the forest. Most of the limbs will grow on a close angle to the tree.You will need to do a few things to make the fruit tree grow the way you want it to.

The first time I planted fruit trees in my yard (they were apple trees) I didn’t know the first thing about them. I just assumed they would do their thing and in three or four years we would start getting apples. Well you may get apples but to ensure you get lots of large apples you have to do a few things. Now if the nursery did their part and started to prune a tree in one of the preferred fruit tree shapes the tree will continue to grow in that general arrangement. But without further attention your tree will soon end up with rubbing branches, too thick of a canopy, when older many undersized fruit, or almost no fruit at all. The closed canopy will also make your tree susceptible to diseases.

How do we make sure your tree performs well in the future? Pruning it and training it now when it’s young. You will need some basic tools to help you along your way. See the list below.

  • Bypass pruning shears
  • Bypass Lopper
  • Pruning saw
  • Pole pruning saw for larger trees.
  • Tree Sealer for larger tree wounds.
  • Metal ID tags
  • Twine or annealed wire


When pruning young fruit trees

There are some general things you need to do. Remove any of the following.

  1. Dead, damaged or diseased limbs and branches.
  2. Any rubbing limb or branch.
  3. Anything growing towards the center of the tree.
  4. Remove any suckers from the base of the tree. Do this whenever you notice them.

Now typically apple, pear, and sweet cherry trees are pruned to have a central leader or modified central leader. Tart Cherry, Plum, Peaches, nectarines, and Apricot are usually pruned to have an open center.

If you find that you have a tree that was pruned differently say an apple with an open center. That’s ok, I’ve seen apple trees pruned many times with an open center. You will need to look at your tree to see if someone has started to shape your tree into one of these categories.

Fruit Tree Shapes

Fruit Tree Shapes

Once you have identified the shape of your tree you should try to maintain that shape as you prune. Remember that removing smaller branches makes it easier fo the tree to heal. Larger limbs will take longer to heal as the tree must grow over any wound. One time I planted a tree in my yard, later that same summer I backed my lawn mower over the tree. Wiped out all the branches on one side of the tree and peeled the bark off the main trunk for about two feet. Its been two years of that tree growing and healing now and the trunk has not completely closed up yet. So try to shape the tree when it’s smaller. Oh and don’t run over your trees with a lawn mower.

The open center tree allows for a lot of air flow and light to reach the entire canopy of the tree. The same can be accomplished with central leader and modified central leader by making sure to limit the number of scaffold branches.

Take a look at the young fruit tree in the picture. The red lines along the branches show limbs that are growing at too sharp of an angle to the tree. In order for a tree to give good fruit set the limbs should be horizontal or below horizontal. Notice some of the limbs have a green line along the limb this shows limbs that are at an acceptable angle.

Good and bad Apple tree Limb angle.

Good and bad Apple tree Limb angle.

The central leader shape basically allows for a single growing tip to continue to grow straight up, establishing scaffold branches along the way.

When Pruning Apple trees to get a modified central leader. Use your Lopping and bypass pruning shears to remove scaffold branches that are at too sharp of an angle to the trunk. Then take your Pruner and remove additional branches until you get ten to twelve main scaffold branches. You can use Pruning saws for larger branches. Make sure to use the three cut method shown in this post. Try to balance the number of branches around the tree so that the limbs are evenly spaced. The top may be cut to one or two side branches taking out he central leader and establishing for the most part the height of the tree. By cutting out the central leader you now have a modified central leader tree. 

When pruning a cherry tree for example you may have a set of branches growing low to the ground maybe around two feet up. If the tree still has the central leader growing above these established limbs cut it off close to these limbs. The tree will now have the cup shape desired with a good open center.

Three Cut Method

Three Cut Method

Types of pruning

Everything discussed so far has been about establishing or maintaining tree shape and general maintenance of a young fruit tree. That’s one type of pruning, now lets talk about pruning to get better fruit set. Cut anything on a branch growing within about 6” of the main trunk. Cut any water sprouts or branches growing on top of limbs. Cut any branches growing directly below a limb. These branches remain shaded and wont produce well. Be careful not to cut fruit spurs.




Pruning Young Fruit trees

Young fruit tree training

After pruning you may find that you still have limbs growing at undesirable angles you can easily fix this by bending the limb down to or below the horizontal then tying it in place with baling wire. You will want to do this mid summer. Leave the wire on until winter then remove them. Remember trees with limbs on close angles to the trunk will be more vegetative. Trees with branches horizontal or below horizontal will set fruit. You can go out and adjust the limbs lower every couple of weeks during the growing season until they are where you want them. This is a permanent change to the structure of the tree. It will not need to be repeated on the same limbs in the future.

Another way is to use clothes pins in the main trunk when the tree is really small just above a newly growing limb. The shoot growing off the side of the tree when still soft can be easily bent to the desired angle.

You can also hang weights from limbs to pull the branches down. Think about how an apple will pull down a limb when the tree is old enough to finally start producing fruit. That apple will pull the limb below horizontal and permanently change the structure of the tree to continually bear fruit. You are just establishing this sooner. And in turn will get more fruit sooner.

Sealing tree limbs after cutting

Should you use pruning sealer? Well it has been shown that pruning sealer, and tree wound dressings don’t prevent disease entering a tree. Nor do they speed wound closer or insects from causing damage. Some experts also say that wound dressing does not prevent decay. Heres what I know. One time one of my Sons took a claw hammer to the bark of a hackberry tree. He didn’t know any better, he thought it would just grow right back in a few weeks. The tree was about six inches in diameter at the time. The spot the bark was removed from was about five inches across, and eight inches from top to bottom. I didn’t know what to do. So I went and bought some tree sealer in a spray can. It was like some kind of black tar substance. Any way I put it on there whenever I saw that it was worn off. About once a year in the spring. Five years went by, the hole in the bark was smaller. I noticed that the stuff had worn off again, and also that our little hackberry tree had gotten pretty big in five years. But what I saw was little holes probably from bugs, some cracking in the wood too in the wounded area. No rotting to be seen though. That was the last time I sprayed it, the next spring I noticed it was completely closed. I’m confident had I not used it that the wood in that large area would have rotted. The tree would have eventually had to come down due to the wound. But we had success. So I say if you want to use it the just use it. I do on large cuts on trees I care about just cause.

I hope you found this to be helpful, and now that you know all about pruning young fruit trees I hope you will go out and try your hand at it. I think you will enjoy it, if not then just enjoy the fruits of your labor anyway.

Thanks for reading and don’t forget to sign up for the PermacultureFlora updates and leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Please Leave your thoughts