Annual pruning fruit trees

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

Gardeners often neglect the annual training and pruning of fruit trees. Without training and pruning, however, fruit trees will not develop proper shape and form. Properly trained and pruned trees will yield high quality fruit much earlier in their lives and live significantly longer.

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Services offers some helpful information the home gardener can use to prune fruit trees properly. A primary objective of training and pruning is to develop a strong tree framework that will support fruit production. Improperly trained fruit trees generally have very upright branch angles, which result in serious limb breakage under a heavy fruit load. This significantly reduces the productivity of the tree and may greatly reduce tree life.

Another goal of annual training and pruning is to remove dead, diseased, or broken limbs. Proper tree training also opens up the tree canopy to maximize light penetration. For most deciduous tree fruit, flower buds for the current season's crop are formed the previous summer. Light penetration is essential for flower bud development and optimal fruit set, flavor, and quality. Although a mature tree may be growing in full sun, a very dense canopy may not allow enough light to reach 12 to 18 inches inside the canopy. Opening the tree canopy also permits adequate air movement through the tree, which promotes rapid drying to minimize disease infection and allows thorough pesticide penetration.

Additionally, a well-shaped fruit tree is aesthetically pleasing, whether in a landscaped yard, garden, or commercial orchard. The general purpose of pruning fruit trees is to regulate growth, improve fruit size and quality, control tree size, and reduce production costs. A properly pruned fruit tree makes fruit easier to pick and minimizes tree damage.

Most pruning is done during the dormant season, preferably just before active growth begins in the spring. At this time, pruning wounds heal faster, flower buds can be easily recognized, and injury from cold winter temperature is avoided. Summer pruning may be done to help train young trees to the desired shape, remove water sprouts and other undesirable growth, and maintain smaller tree size.

It should be remembered, however, that all pruning has a dwarfing effect. For maximum yield of high-quality fruit, prune only as necessary to establish a tree with a strong framework capable of supporting heavy crops annually without damage and to maintain a tree sufficiently open to allow penetration of sunlight, air, and spray material for good fruit development and pest control.

Although pruning procedures vary according to the type, age and variety, all newly planted fruit trees should be pruned in the spring before growth starts. This is necessary to stimulate lateral bud development from which to select good horizontal limbs.

Fruit tree pruning can be a difficult concept for the home gardener. Many of us know how to prune ornamental trees, or understand the concept of pruning; but when were dealing with fruit trees, its a whole new ball game. Pruning cuts are made for different reasons. We have to be concerned about fruit production as well as the health of the tree. The beauty of the tree becomes less significant.

A Fruit Tree Pruning Workshop will be held at the Fruit Research Lab, 290 University Drive, Biglerville, PA. This workshop will cover how to prune fruit trees, young and old, as well as other pertinent information on thinning and general care for the trees. The workshop will be from 10 am 12 noon on March 20, 2004. re registration is required, and there will be a $5 fee for the class. Call Penn State Cooperative Extension at 334-6271 for a registration form.

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