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How to Prune a Fruit Tree

It is often remarked that pruning is more of an art or philosophy than a science. There are many different pruning methods, and an experienced orchardist will approach pruning with a view not just to their long-term goals but also to the growing habits and vigor of each different variety.

The simple pruning instructions we have provided here are intended to provide a starting point. You will find our pruning advice divided into the following sections.

Apple and Pear Pruning

  • First Pruning of Freestanding Trees
  • First Pruning of Trellised Trees
  • Second Pruning of Freestanding Trees
  • Second Pruning of Trellised Trees with Permanent Scaffolds
  • Second Pruning of Trellised Trees Renewal Method

Pruning of Stone Fruit Trees

  • First Pruning of Open-Vase / Quad-V Form Trees
  • First Pruning of Perpendicular-V Form Trees
  • Second Pruning of Open-Vase / Quad-V Form Trees
  • Second Pruning of Perpendicular-V Form Trees

Apple and Pear Pruning

When you receive your tree, please follow the initial planting and training instructions. Always bear in mind the importance of light penetration and good airflow for tree health, and that pruning cuts made during the dormant season will invigorate your trees, promoting growth during the growing season. 

First Pruning of Freestanding Trees

This pruning should be done the second winter after planting. Regardless of whether you are training your trees for an open-vase or a central-leader form, these basic guidelines should be followed:

  • Select the lowest tier of scaffolds (permanent branches). You should have 3-4 scaffolds distributed around the trunk at least 4' from the ground.
  • Remove any shoots below your scaffold with flush cuts.
  • Remove any nearby competing shoots around the scaffolds.
  • Ensure that there is a single central leader (apical dominance) by removing competing shoots. Even if your ultimate goal is an open-vase form, you will leave the leader intact this year.
  • If your longterm plan is a central-leader form, be careful not to remove what will be your second tier of scaffolds, about 24-30" above the first tier, but you can remove any shoots between the two tiers. Don’t get carried away with pruning this year. For a tree this young, 2-3 major cuts is usually sufficient. 

First Pruning of Trellised Trees

This pruning is done during the first winter after planting. The following applies both to trees destined for permanent scaffolding and to those that will undergo renewal pruning. 

  • Select a central leader and remove any competing shoots. 
  • Select the  lowest tier of scaffolds, 32-36" from the ground. Remove any shoots below this tier, and anything for the first foot above it. In total, you should make a total of 2-3 major cuts. 

Second Pruning of Freestanding Trees

This pruning is done the third winter after planting. 

  • For central-leader form trees, select the second tier of scaffolds if you did not do this last year. These should be 24-30" above the first tier. If growth allows, select a third tier, 24-30" above the second. Remove any shoots below and between your scaffolds and anything that is competing with the central leader.
  • For open-vase form trees, top the central leader just above the highest scaffold and remove shoots below the scaffolds. If necessary, spread scaffolds to 45-50° angles and establish apical dominance. Next year and in all following years you should also remove upright shoots from the center of the tree and thin out the remaining fruiting wood.

Second Pruning of Trellised Trees with Permanent Scaffolds

This pruning is done the second winter after planting. The tree should have put on copious growth since the last pruning. 

  • There will be no permanent scaffolds above the tier you selected last year. Any wood that fruited the previous year is removed. Thin out about 25% of the first-year wood using dutch cuts. 
  • This is ongoing for all years above permanent scaffolds. Make sure the scaffolds are trained upward at roughly 45°, or even narrower as the weight of fruit will bring them down. No permanent growth should be established on the scaffolds; they are treated like the central leader above the scaffold tier.

Second Pruning of Trellised Trees – Renewal Method

This pruning is done the second winter after planting. 

  • Anything that fruited the in previous year is removed, including the lower scaffolds.
  • All third-year wood is removed. 
  • Second-year wood is thinned, and then continue thinning first-year if necessary.

A  note on Pears: These trees are very upright. They should be spread as soon as they have scaffolds that are being selected. This encourages airflow, light, and productivity. There are a number of different ways to spread pear scaffolds: you can tie the branches to the central leader below with twine, or you can use weights or spreaders. 

Pruning of Stone Fruit Trees 

First Pruning of Open-Vase / Quad-V Form Trees

This should be done the first spring after tree was planted. This training method can be used for any stone fruit tree.

  • Select four permanent scaffolds, evenly spaced around tree, the lower the better (as long as they are above the graft union), at about 60-70° if possible. Ideally the scaffolds are not all emerging at the same height, but spaced out vertically as well as horizontally.
  • Top the central leader directly above highest scaffold. Expect a lot of vigorous growth in response to this pruning.

First Pruning of Perpendicular-V Form Trees

This method is used only for Peaches and Nectarines. You should make the initial scaffold selection 2-3 months after planting. The method is the same as as quad-V, except you should select only two scaffolds that are transverse to the row. Do not use this method for apricots. 

Second Pruning of Open-Vase / Quad-V Form Trees

  • Maintain apical dominance of the scaffolds.
  • Scaffolds should be at roughly a 60° angle. If the angle starts to widen, cut the scaffold back to an upright shoot. 
  • Flush cut any shoots that are growing toward the center of the tree, likewise any shoots pointed downward. The end result should be a scaffold that is feathered on the sides, but not the top or bottom.
  • Remove shoots that are less than 1/4" diameter. 
  • Finally, cut about 50% of the remaining shoots back to 1-2 nodes. Choose non-fruiting shoots for this step. These cuts will produce next years fruiting growth. 
  • Ideally, your tree will have no permanent scaffolds beyond the 4 you originally chose. All other wood should not be older than 1 year. 

Second Pruning of Perpendicular-V Form Trees

  • Prune your trees as described  above for open-vase / quad-V form trees. The only difference is that you are maintaining only 2 scaffolds rather than 4. 

A note on stone fruit: Be careful to fully remove stubs that are not producing active growth. These will be vectors for disease. Keep a close eye on the the crotch angle; this is a weak point and can also provide an entry for disease or insects. If the tree is in danger of splitting under fruit weight, the scaffolds can be bound together with strapping.

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