The Subtle Signs of Sweetness

As the winter approaches, so does that time of the year when deciduous fruit trees go dormant and the need is triggered to get out and prune.  Perhaps the loss of leaves and the fattening buds among the bare limbs is that subtle reminder of sweet fruit setting for our enjoyment in the months ahead.

As the former owner of a tree service, I find it interesting that people are so connected to their fruit trees.  They often take in stride those large majestic shade trees in their yards, assuming that the big guys take care of themselves.  Yet in an effort to connect with the smaller elements in their landscapes, folks may attend fruit tree pruning workshops … only to freeze like a deer in headlights when confronted by cutting the first limb.  With loppers in hand, the network of branches becomes a puzzle that may be difficult to unfold.

 There are several methods of fruit tree pruning from minimal to extreme depending on your school of thought.  For some it may be as intimidating as rocket science. But I believe the process is simple and methodical.  What to do, where to start, and the flow of work from one section to the next is the key.  The most important elements include knowing the type of fruit tree, the basic form that you are attempting to achieve or maintain, and knowing the location on the branches where the fruit buds are setting.  Once those three things are understood, take a step back, look at the whole tree, and develop a simple work plan.

 How To Prune Fruit Trees and Roses by Sanford Martin and updated by Ken Anderson of Walter Anderson Nursery, is sold by some nurseries.  I found it at La Sumida Nursery in Santa Barbara.  The original publication was written in 1944 and has been updated with twenty-one editions through 2011.  This comprehensive book instructs basic fruit tree pruning techniques that have been in practice for many years.  Other publications by the UC Cooperative Extension offer similar information in a condensed form and free of charge.  I have listed these links at the end of my blog.

book cover
Latest edition by R. Sanford Martin

 Here are some basic guidelines:

1. Identify the tree you are pruning;

2. Be aware of the form that is best for this tree and the space in which it is growing.  Pruning an open center can allow a more even penetration of sunlight to the branches and fruit.  Pruning to establish a central leader helps develop strength.  There are many variations that are permissible.  My yard is small with a high density orchard that requires more of a reduced form and year round pruning.

Central leader trained apple trees
open center apple
Open centered trained apple tree
An old peach with rot in its trunk, still produces delicious fruit but needs some extra support. A newly planted tree nearby will be its replacement.
Espalier Fruit Tree At Garfield Park Conservatory
An espaliered fruit tree against a bare wall, is an alternative form that can add a formal touch to the garden    

3.     Where are the fruit buds forming?  This may be tricky as varieties of the same fruit type form at the ends of the limbs, or along the first or second third of the length of the branch.  On some trees, fruit may form on spurs,  the short shoots on the interior of the tree.  Others may form on the current season growth, and some one year growth.  The references that I’ve listed throughout the blog expounds on all of these variations.


The plump, short buds that grow along the inside are fruit spurs.  These produce fruit year after year on many varieties.

4. Create a work plan:  Determine your objectives;

  • Step back and look at the entire tree.
  • First prune out dead and declining branches (diseased);
  • Thin to create a tree with a strong central leader or an open center (depending on species and space);
  • Prune to encourage lower strong side growing limbs (scaffolds) at a comfortable height for basic form and support;  Remove downward growing limbs.
  • Selectively thin to develop a spaced framework of branches around the central leader or each upright limb;  The strongest branches are attached to the trunk or other limbs at angles between 90 and 45 degrees, less than 45 degree attachments are weak;
  • With some stone and pome fruits, reduce the branch length (depending on species, the location of fruiting buds, and the space for growth);  Some trees do not need to be reduced, especially if they produce fruit on the current seasons growth.  Thinning may be the maximum pruning for these species;
  • 5. Manage pests and diseases that love to feast and infect trees, many of which attack multiple fruit varieties.  Learn about some of these at the cooperative extension web site.  Dormant sprays may also be appropriate to manage some of these pests.
  • 6. Clean up fallen fruit and leaves, and mummified fruit remaining in the tree to minimize infected parts that can spread to newly forming healthy tree parts.
  • 7. Fertilize three times per year or every four months for most fruit trees.
  • 8. Check and manage soil moisture from the time of flowering through the harvest.  Irrigation should be directed at the target root zone, 3”-12” from the trunk, out past the edge of the dripline, and to a depth of  3”-6”.  A layer of coarse wood chips, 2”-3” thick applied over the root zone, helps to hold moisture in the soil and slowly enhance the soil biology.
  • 9. Follow-up pruning and hand thinning of fruit may be necessary during other parts of the year to manage growth and development of fruit.

    Fruit thinning, before and after hand thinning to improve size and taste

 I encourage using the references below. and get a hold of a sharp set of bypass pruning shears and a handsaw.  An orchard ladder, pole saw and pole pruner may help when pruning taller trees. Lopping shears are good for quick and effortless cutting of larger branches, but they do not allow precision pruning.  Sterilize tools between trees by spraying the cutting surfaces with a 10% bleach solution and wiping them dry.  When pruning, protect your eyes with glasses, wear a hat to minimize scraping the head (and keep out bugs), and slide on gloves to minimize cuts.

Always a good idea to review these Orchard Ladder Safety Guidelines

 If you decide to pass on your own fruit tree care, feel free to contact me at Head Start Tree Training, a niche tree service that specializes in the care of fruit trees from December through February.  It seems that most tree services prefer the big trees and have to charge a lot for working on little fruit trees.  Many gardeners reluctantly provide fruit tree pruning but are unsure of the objectives and guidelines and haphazardly over prune hoping for the best.  I have assembled a small staff of enthusiastic horticulture students that jump at the opportunity to learn and care for some of homeowners most prized landscape possessions and at affordable rates.

 Now its time to get out there and start your engines.  Enjoy the cooler months ahead and the subtle signs of sweetness.

How can I help you with your trees?

Treemendously yours,



For more info on fruit tree pruning:

For old fruit trees that need restoration:


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