Prune for health, aesthetics and fruit

As more people focus on growing their own food and creating edible landscapes, fruit trees have become as common for landscapes as they are for commercial crops. We all enjoy the thought of picking fresh fruit from trees growing in our own backyard. But, to make those dreams come true, we need to care for them properly.

close up of small tree bud with finger for size
Both apple and pear trees produce fruit on short spurs on old wood, two years or older. Photo by Trenten Mazet.

Aside from appropriate variety choices and keeping the trees healthy, pruning is one of the most important tasks. Maintenance pruning done incorrectly can ruin the tree’s structure and ability to produce fruit for several years. The focus of pruning should be centered on three things: tree health, aesthetics and fruit production.

You may ask, why is fruiting not first? It’s simple. If the tree is not in good health and not aesthetically pleasing to you, it cannot maintain a good crop of fruits, and you may cut it down after a couple of years of failure to bear fruit. With the weather in the high Sierras being unpredictable, it’s not uncommon for even the best producers, like apple and pear, to not produce every year.

If you do not have what could be considered an orchard, your pruning style may be influenced more by aesthetics. Pruning for an attractive tree does not mean it will not be productive; it just means that you will not have the same productivity as someone who is pruning specifically for fruit. When pruning for optimal fruit production, we focus on opening up the tree to allow more sunlight into the center, which will result in more successful flower buds and better fruiting.

Pruning of fruit trees can done throughout the year, although the vast majority is done during the dormant season, before the trees begin actively growing. During this time, undesirable branches, crossing branches and dead wood can be more easily identified and removed.

For a mature fruit tree, it is important to not remove more than 15 to 20 percent of the tree’s live wood (dead, dried-up wood does not count). It is also critical to be familiar with what age wood your tree will produce fruit on. The most common trees in our area, apple and pear, produce fruit on short spurs on old wood, two years or older. Plum trees are similar in structure to apple and pear. A strong structure is important to support the weight of the fruit. Peaches and nectarines will produce fruit on one-year-old shoots (last year’s wood), called new wood. The goal of pruning these trees is to remove inward-growing branches and to main the strongest of the outward-growing fruiting branches.

There is a lot to learn about keeping your fruit trees healthy, attractive and productive. To learn more about pruning your fruit trees, attend University of Nevada Cooperative Extension’s free “Gardening in Nevada: The Bartley Ranch series” class “Training and Pruning Fruit Trees,” March 6, from 6 to 8 p.m., at Bartley Ranch Regional Park, 6000 Bartley Ranch Road in Reno.


Wendy Hanson Mazet is the horticulture program coordinator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension in Washoe County. Have questions about your plants? Contact a master gardener at 775-336-0265 or, or visit