Time to prune fruit trees

In the midst of the winter cold and piles of snow outside, you might not be thinking about your garden chores. Most of them have been put on hold till the snow melts away. However, the snow may have many fruit tree owners thinking about their annual winter pruning.

dormant peach tree
The dormant season makes pruning easier because you can see all of the branches without leaves. Photo by Wendy Hanson Mazet, Cooperative Extension.

Yes, even with snow on the ground, the dormant season is the best time to work on maintenance pruning and training. The main reason is that you can see all of the branches when the leaves are gone, making it easier to decide which are the most critical to remove.

The first priority for fruit tree pruning is to remove dead, rubbing or crossing branches. The next is to remove anything that may be diseased. Another thing to think about when pruning is your purpose: are you pruning for basic tree health, aesthetics, fruit production or all three?

Most orchardists say pruning in moderation can be done at any time. This works for the most common fruit trees in our area, apple and pear, which produce fruit on short spurs on old wood, two years or older. Removing water sprouts, suckers and broken branches from these trees can be done any time, whether the tree has leaves or not.

However, for stone fruits, even though they are similar in structure to apple and pear, their fruiting habit is different and the focus of pruning will also be different. Plums, peaches, apricots and nectarines will produce fruit on one-year-old shoots (last year’s wood), called new wood. These trees must be trained by removing the inward-growing branches and maintaining the strongest of the outward-growing fruiting branches.

Fruit tree training is more targeted. It means looking at bud direction and making cuts that will open the tree’s center by directing new branches to go specific directions. Training of this type must be done during the dormant season, because it involves pruning for greater air movement through the branches. It’s easier to see structural problems and direct growth during the dormant season.

dormant apple tree
Young trees must be trained during the dormant season to allow for greater air movement and determine where the lowest branches begin. Photo by Wendy Hanson Mazet, Cooperative Extension.

The age of the tree matters too. When gardeners purchase “whips,” which are young, typically two-year-old trees, the trees must be trained. The first cut is critical because you must decide where the lowest branches will begin.

Many people have fruit trees in their front or back yards, or they have purchased a home with existing trees. Fruiting may not be their top priority, and just having a nicely shaped, aesthetically pleasing tree is more important. In this case, with mature established trees, all that is needed is to prune out crossing, rubbing, broken and diseased branches, removing no more than 15 to 20 percent of the tree’s live wood (dead, dried-up wood does not count).

Learn more about pruning your fruit trees by attending the free Gardening in Nevada class “Training and Pruning Fruit Trees,” March 5, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Bartley Ranch Regional Park in Reno.

Wendy Hanson Mazet is the Master Gardener 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 mastergardeners@unce.unr.edu. Or, visit www.growyourownnevada.com.