Fruit Tree Pruning in Winter

 In Fruit, Gardening tips, Pruning

Fruit tree pruning seems to flummox most people! Frightened of doing something wrong and in fear of ruining the tree they take the easy option and do nothing!

But fruit tree pruning needn’t fill everyone with dread. It should be a pleasurable experience leading to short and long term benefits. Pruning of dormant fruit trees is one of the winter gardening tasks that I look forward to especially on a crisp cold day.

Why Prune

Perhaps an understanding of why we prune fruit trees will help and encourage more of us to have a go?

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A sharp saw to prune an apple tree

Fruit tree pruning is necessary to control branch growth so that there is plenty of light and air getting into the tree. This leads to less disease, probably fewer pests and certainly better quality fruit. The fruit produced in the centre of the tree will have better colour. It will be larger and probably taste significantly better too!

As well as generally thinning out branches you should aim to remove any weak growing ones. Remove also any that are broken and any that are likely to rub against others.

Older Trees

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Using Felco secateurs to prune an apple tree

With well-established trees you may be able to carry out all the pruning that is needed with a sharp pruning saw. Aim to remove no more than a third of the volume of wood in one year from a tree. For trees that have not been pruned for years I find that it is far better to spread severe pruning over several winters. If you get stuck in and cut out too much the tree responds by growing lots of lush shoots! These -called ‘water shoots’- do not produce fruit!

Regular pruning pays off

Where trees have had annual pruning you will need to use secateurs to thin out smaller shoots. Perhaps you’ll have little use for the saw. I find that young trees are best pruned with secateurs. You will want to make cuts to shape the tree so that it develops into the form that you are aiming for. I suggest that you prune to develop a wine glass open-centred shape. The exception is for intensively trained trees such as espalier, cordon, step-over, etc. These and any plums and cherries should be pruned in summer when in leaf.

Other tips

Bare in mind that winter fruit tree pruning actually encourages growth. Whereas summer pruning checks it and switches energy into producing more fruit buds.

When fruit tree pruning at any time of the year it is vital to make clean cuts. Use really high quality tools. I find that the Felco range are the best!

Vertically growing branches tend to continue to produce more shoots and leaves. Those that are growing horizontally tend to produce fruit and very little new growth. Knowing this I tie vertical shoots down so that they are at 45 degrees to horizontal and that alone will trigger fruit production!

Further reading

There’s some useful info on tree pruning from the RHS here.


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