What a delight fruit trees like apple, pear, cherry, and plum are to the beginning gardener. They come in all sizes and varieties and provide colorful blossoms in the spring and delicious fruits in the summer and fall.
The most important care you can give your fruit trees is an annual pruning. This will boost your harvest of top-notch fruit, keep your tree healthy, and manage its size. You’ll need a good set of hand clippers or “shears” and a set of long-handled “loppers” for higher branches. Your first pruning should come when you plant your bare-root fruit tree, most likely in the spring or the fall. After that, late winter is the best, when the tree is dormant and the leaves are gone so you can see where to cut. You should never prune in the spring, when the fruit tree is growing actively and its sap is running. You are likely to cause bleeding and open the tree to infections.
When pruning, you want to avoid flat cuts or the stubs will collect water and invite disease. Cut at a slant about one-quarter inch (a little under one centimeter) above a promising bud (that is, a bud that will produce a branch headed in the direction you want), a promising side branch, or a main branch.
When you are pruning your fruit trees, you are aiming for producing a tree in a spreading shape, without branches too close to the ground, and thinned so the sun can get through the leaves and ripen the fruit. For trees that bear heavy fruits like apples and pears, you want to encourage what is called a “central leader,” a strong middle branch from which other strong branches grow. Thin the branches along the center trunk by cutting right at the trunk so there’s plenty of space between them. Do the same for each secondary branch and so on until you get to the outermost branches. When choosing where to thin, look to cut away branches that are mostly vertical or too close to other established branches. For trees that bear lighter weight fruits, such as cherry and plums, prune for an open center. You want to encourage three or four branches along the lower part of the trunk spreading out to form a vase. The secondary branches can then be treated as they are in apple and pear trees. Whenever you’re doing your pruning to shape, also remove damaged wood back to a live branch, take off a few older limbs before they become too big, and cut off branches that have crossed and might rub.
The one exception to the rule about pruning only in the colder months is the case of suckers. These are fast-growing shoots that grow along the roots of a fruit tree. These will not grow into healthy fruit trees but will compete for resources with your tree. Suckers should be treated as weeds and lopped off at the base or mowed over as soon as they appear.
Pruning your fruit trees once a year is an easy chore that will keep your trees blooming and attractive and help ensure a robust crop.