Training & Pruning Fruit Trees

Training and pruning fruit trees is important to being a successful fruit grower. You train early in a fruit tree's life to achieve proper/desired shape and form (central leader, open center). The first-early years of a tree's life are most important for proper tree training until the tree reaches its mature height.

Pruning fruit trees is best done when the trees are dormant in late winter-early spring. Some summer pruning can be done (storm damage removal, fire blight eradication) but most pruning occurs during the dormant season. Although fruit trees will grow and produce fruit without pruning, you need to prune to create a more open tree canopy to allow more sunlight and air flow thru the interior. Fruits grown in full sun develop better skin, color, and flavor than those grown in too much shade.

Featured Image: Zestar!® Apple

Open Center or Vase-shaped

Pruning Peach Trees and/or Plum Trees (potentially Apple Trees)
First Year: After Planting
  • Select 3-5 branches for the scaffold limbs.
  • During the first year, growth of those lateral branches should be encouraged to develop strong, wide crotch angles.
  • The best time to position younger branches is in June or when they are 3 to 6 inches long.
  • Selectively cutback or remove any secondary branches growing on the scaffold limbs.
  • In the first dormant season, cut the central leader out of the tree just above the uppermost scaffold limbs.
Second/Third Year: Late Winter, Early Spring
  • Remove about 25% of the extension growth from branches by cutting just above a strong, outward-facing bud to encourage more branching.
  • Selectively remove secondary shoots on branches; be sure to remove any shoots that are growing inward and/or rubbing.
  • The upper branches must be kept shorter than the lower branches.
Third/Fourth Year: Late Winter, Early Spring
  • Remove any branches growing vigorously into the center of the tree as well as downward growing branches.
  • Unless there are a few lateral branches, do not cut the tips off the branches.
Yearly Maintenance
  • After the framework of the tree has developed, continue moderately, annually pruning fruit trees.
  • Always eliminate dead and/or diseased wood and any rubbing branches.
  • The accompanying graphic is a full run of the 5-year plan.

Central Leader

Pruning Apple Trees, Cherry Trees (tart), Pear Trees and/or Plum Trees
First Year – After Planting
  • Select 4-5 branches for the lowest tier - these are your scaffold branches. Remove other branches.
  • Select well-spaced branches growing within 18 inches of one another on opposite or indirect sides of the trunk. Growth of the laterals should be encouraged to grow strong, wide crotch angles.
  • The best time to position younger branches is in June or when they are 3 to 6 inches long.
  • The central leader must always be the tallest part of the tree.
  • Remove any secondary shoots on scaffold branches.
Second/Third Year - Late Winter, Early Spring
  • Select 3-5 branches to make a second tier of scaffold limbs, remove other branches from that area.
  • Encourage wide crotch angles on your scaffold limbs by bending, tieing or weighting down branches.
  • The lowest branch of the second tier should be at least 24 inches above the top of the lower tier.
  • Selectively remove secondary shoots that are rubbing or growing inward on the lowest two tiers.
  • Create a “Christmas tree” shape by keeping upper branches shorter than the lower branches.
Third/Fourth Year - Late Winter, Early Spring
  • Repeat “Second Year Spring” pruning/training concepts to create a third set of scaffold branches.
  • Remove branches that are rubbing or growing inward allowing sunlight to penetrate the canopy.
Yearly Maintenance
  • Once leader reaches desired height, bend the top and tie it to another branch or cut off the leader just above a weaker side branch. Both techniques stimulate higher fruit production.
  • Continue to remove branches that are rubbing, growing inward or are diseased/dead.
  • Depending on the type of fruit tree, removal of the oldest, fruit-bearing spurs may be necessary 5 years from when production starts.