Pruning fruit trees for production and health – How to prune fruit trees 

While many people choose to prune their plants to keep them looking good, when it comes to pruning fruit trees it is really important to keep up with their regular pruning to encourage production and to keep them healthy. Generally speaking, if the apple, pear, or plum tree is free-standing, then they should be pruned in the winter when they are dormant. If the plum, pear, or apple tree is being grown as a pyramid or espalier, then they need to be pruned in late August or early September.

Remember that you are pruning your fruit tree to increase production and health. Don’t despair if your apple, plum, or pear tree doesn’t look like the books show; they rarely look like the diagrams!



Pruning tools

pruning fruit trees tripod ladder
Tripod Ladder

As with all gardening jobs, it is important to make sure that your gardening equipment is in good condition.

  • Pruning tools, such as secateurs and saws, should be kept sharp and free form rust.
  • Make sure that ladders are stable and consider a fruit tripod ladder – these will help you to get as close as possible to the branches.



How to prune apple trees

When should you prune your apple tree?

When the tree is dormant in the winter. Once all of the leaves should have dropped, you can now prune your apple tree.

If you go by these five tips for pruning apple trees, then you shouldn’t go far wrong: 

  1. How much to I prune?
    Prune between 10-20% of the canopy. Move while you are working; move around the tree while you prune. It’s always better to prune a little than to over-prune your apple tree – there is always next year!

  2. Think about regrowth:
    With apple trees, be wary of pruning too much. In general, the more you prune a healthy tree, the stronger the regrowth!

  3. Think about your pruning aims:
    Your aim should be to prune part of the old wood to encourage new growth. Apples will fruit best on wood that is between one to four years old, so try to keep a visual record of your pruning.

  4. Create an open centre:
    Creating an open centre for your apple tree will allow light in to ripen the fruit and maintains the air movement around the branches.

  5. No hair cuts!
    Pruning an apple tree for production and re-growth is not the same as keeping it neat and tidy! Pruning needs to be staggered to keep the regrowth even. If you always prune the same areas, then that’s where the re-growth will always be. You also need to consider the variety of your apple tree. If you prune with too much of a ‘hair cut’ then varieties that fruit on the tips or partial tip-bearing trees (such as Discovery and Bramley) will not produce well the next year as you will have pruned all of their fruiting wood.


Do I need to use pruning paints after pruning an apple tree?

There was a time when pruning paints were fashionable and widely used. There is really no need to cover pruning cuts of apple trees with pruning paint. 


How to prune plum trees

We have seen that apple trees require yearly pruning for production and health. While plum trees do need some pruning to thin the old wood, they do not require such precise pruning. Young plum trees should be pruned in the spring and established ones should be pruned in mid-summer to help avoid silver leaf disease.

Top tips for pruning plum trees:

There are several popular ways to prune plum trees, including pyramid, fan, and bush.

How to prune pyramid plum trees

These are much smaller than the more popular bush plums. If your plum pyramid is on ‘St. Julien A’ rootstock, they should be kept to a height of 2.4m, and those on ‘Pixy’ rootstocks should be kept to a height of 1.8m.

  1. In the plum pyramid’s first summer, prune new branches to around 20cm. The branches are best cut above an outward-pointing or downward bud. Side branches should be pruned around 15cm to a bud. The leader should be tied in.
  2. After the initial pruning, in subsequent years, the plum pyramid should be pruned so that the leader is cut by about two-thirds. This pruning should happen yearly. Once a plum pyramid on ‘St. Julien A’ rootstock, has reached 2.4m and on ‘Pixy’ has reached 1.8m, only prune by a few centimeters or less to retain the height.
  3. To maintain the shape and fruiting volumes, always remove any competing vertical shoots in late June.

How to prune bush plums

The bush plum is the most popular type of plum. A well-pruned bush plum will be one that has an open centre and a clear stem of up to 1m. Again, the optimum height will depend on the rootstock. A plum bush grafted onto ‘Pixy’ rootstock will reach 3m, ‘Brompton’ and ‘Myrobalan B’ rootstock will reach 6m, and ‘St. Julien A’ rootstock will achieve 3.6-4.5m.

To achieve the clear stem, buds that appear on the trunk of the bush plum should be rubbed off and any rootstock suckers should be cut. Pruning is fairly simple once the main shape has been developed. Any crossing, vertical, weak, damaged, or diseased branches should be removed.

How to prune a fan-trained plum

To create a fan-trained plum, horizontal wires should be attached to a wall or fence at around 15cm apart. You can start from scratch with a maiden plum tree, or you can purchase partly trained fan plums. Make sure that you know what rootstock your fan-trained plum is on!

Height and spread:

  • ‘Pixy’ rootstock: 3m x 2m
  • ‘St. Julian A’ rootstock: 3.6m x 2.4m
a mature fan trained plum tree – notice the supporting wires


Pruning plum trees that have been left and are overgrown

The first thing to think about here is to remember that this should be a phased prune over several years. The aim is a well-balanced tree. Don’t be tempted to prune everything away in one go as the tree is likely to respond to this by sending up mass of new growth, which you will then need to manage again in the summer.


Plum tree problems

When plum trees are grown in favourable conditions, they can be very heavy croppers. While this sounds great, you will need to consider the health of the tree and the strength of the branches; thinning is important to ensure the tree can hold the fruit. Prune away any damaged branches right back to where that branch is healthy.

Should I use pruning paint on plum trees

Some people will recommend the use of a pruning paint over cuts in the plum tree as they can be particularly susceptible to disease that enters via these cuts.


How to prune pear trees

You should prune your pear tree once its leaves have all dropped in the winter.

pruning a pear tree

Five top tips for pruning a pear tree:

  1. How much to prune?
    You should aim to prune between 10 and 20% from the canopy. Prune around the tree to ensure you are pruning evenly. Don’t worry about not taking enough off; you will be pruning again next year!

  2. Don’t prune too harshly
    If you take too much off when pruning, the pear tree will respond by producing ‘watershoots.’ They are vigorous and will crown the pear tree.

  3. Have a final idea in mind when pruning
    When pruning you are looking to take out some of the old wood to encourage new growth. It is a good idea to keep in mind that the best fruiting wood is that aged one to four years.

  4. Create an open centre
    Open centres allow light into the canopy of the pear tree to ripen the fruit. An open centre also allows for increased air movement which will help to discourage disease.

  5. No hair cuts!
    As with apple trees, when it comes to pruning a pear tree, is should be mostly about production and health and only partially about aesthetics. Be selective about the branches you are pruning and concentrate on crowded areas.


Should I use pruning paint on pear trees

As with pruning apple trees, pruning paint is not necessary for use with pear trees.

Pruning is an exciting time in the plant’s year. Take the time to prepare your equipment and plan your pruning. Don’t be afraid to ask for experienced advice.

There are people within the permaculture and sustainable agriculture communities, such as Masanobu Fukuoka and Sepp Holzer, who are advocates of the practice of the non-pruning methods of maintaining orchards … but that is probably a conversation for another day!

Happy pruning!