Late winter and early spring is typically the best time to be pruning your fruit trees and bushes. While there are some exceptions (like peach trees which should be pruned after flowering), we’re put together this overview as a reminder to get pruning if you haven’t done so already or to set a reminder in your calendar to prune your trees and bushes next year.
Step 1: Assess and Clean
The first step is to take stock of how your trees/bushes look. This is best done while plants are dormant and before the leaves and buds open in the spring. This allows you an unobstructed view to assess the plant, looking for things like even growth, the presence of suckers or water sprouts growing from the base or a branch, and how healthy overall the plant looks.
During this stage, you’ll want to remove any sections that are dead, damaged, or diseased. Some will be easily removed by hand while others will need a good, sharp pair of pruners or loppers to get the job done. Cut back any suckers growing from the base of the tree or suckers growing in the pathway in the case of cane fruits like raspberries and blackberries. Water sprouts should also be removed, which can usually be easily identified by their thin, suspiciously straight, vertical branches growing up from a main branch.
Step 2: Thin
Throughout the pruning process, remember to step back periodically and see how your work is coming along. It is easy to get caught up in the moment and lose sight of the bigger picture.
The goal of thinning is to allow all areas of the tree/bush to get enough air and light. This will boost fruit production and reduce the chance of pests and diseases as there will be fewer pockets of stagnant, moist air. Secondary branches that cross through the center of the tree canopy are often prime candidates for thinning, as are branches that are growing downward, or are rubbing and touching other branches.
One image you can think of when pruning larger and more mature fruit trees is that you want to be able to toss a softball easily up into all areas of the canopy without it getting stuck or hitting other branches on the way up and down.
Step 3: Shape
Shaping the tree is the last step and can be thought of a giving the tree a haircut. Branches can be trimmed back so that only 1/4 to 1/3 of the previous year’s growth is left. This will allow the branches to grow shorter and thicker, rather than longer and thinner. This can also help to stimulate the tree to have a more lush lower canopy, which makes for easier picking and management in the future. When shaping the tree, make sure you prune back to just above a bud.
Like many gardening activities, pruning can be thought of as both an art and a science. It can take years of experience to become an expert on pruning a variety of plants, and larger trees may need specialized equipment and ladders to do a proper job. However, don’t let that scare you off if you are interested in learning to prune your trees yourself. With practice comes improvement, and plants are typically hardy and forgiving when it comes to wanting to grow and produce.
For more information, we suggest you check out Lee Reich’s excellent books such as “The Pruning Book”.
Cover Image by F. D. Richards, used under its Creative Commons license.