What should I cut? How should I cut it? When should I cut it? These are all questions we’re asked when we talk about pruning trees on the homestead. Learn how to prune trees for maximum growth and produce as much fruit as possible.
Thinning the garden and pruning trees are my most hated chores. I find it really hard to cut a piece off of a tree or vine.
I know that it is for the good of the plant and for my family, as it causes the plant to be able to produce more and healthier fruit.
The other problem is that it can be a confusing task. I was always concerned about cutting the wrong thing off, the wrong way, at the wrong time!
When I first started pruning, I tended to err on the side of caution, not cutting enough. I have learned by experience and from good advice from my old-timer friends, especially Mr. Ted Blankenship, a 94-year-old gardening friend, so it’s not as scary a task. I will cut just about anything off the tree that I don’t like the “looks” of.
Why You Should Prune Trees
Pruning is often associated with gardening and landscaping but is necessary for fruit trees and bushes as well. Pruning your fruit trees can result in higher yields of fruit, preserving the lifespan of the tree, and increasing its resistance to pests and diseases.
Fruit trees tend to produce larger, healthier yields of fruit if they are pruned properly.
While not pruning or improper pruning can result in dead branches, lack of fruiting, and the tree itself becoming less healthy and more susceptible to disease and pests. To maintain a successful pruning regime it is important to identify which branches need to be pruned and when to prune them.
When to Prune Trees
Trees should be pruned when they are not actively growing, this is late winter, usually from mid-January to early February for the northern hemisphere. In colder climates, this may mean earlier or later in the year depending on your temperatures.
Unless you are south of the Mason Dixon Line here in the U.S., you still have time to prune in late February early March, usually. If the sap has started to run, don’t prune or you’ll risk the life of your plant.
The cold weather stops the flow of sap in trees which means there is no growth or development going on, it’s dormant.
If you cut the plant while the sap is still running or after it has begun to run in the spring, you will cause it to “bleed” to death.
Pruning should be done in the morning when it’s less hot, or during cloudy weather.
The first year you plant your fruit tree or any tree, do no pruning of any kind because it can stunt growth that is crucial to development at this young age.
Young trees need all of their energy for establishing roots and developing growth. When they are 2-3 years old, they should be pruned back in the dormant winter season to begin shaping the tree and to maintain growth as it prepares for fruit production.
Pruning after this stage can also cause excess leaf growth which in turn requires more water and nutrients from the soil and less fruit production. As a matter of fact, the tree may even cast any fruit off in order to preserve its life.
What to Prune
The skeleton of a tree is made up of its main branches. They are usually easily seen. Take a few minutes to identify them. You should not remove these branches.
You should prune away dead and diseased branches at any time of the year, but you should not trim any green shoots, limbs, or suckers (shoots that grow up from or near the ground) except as discussed above.
It’s best to concentrate on removing weak growth and crossing branches. The rule to prune trees that I learned from my grandfather is: “Any branch that grows towards the trunk of the tree, cut it off. Any branch that crosses over another branch, cut it back or remove it.”
I learned later this establishes good airflow and sunlight exposure reducing the risk of certain diseases and pests.
Determine how tall you want the tree to be and trim any limb or growth that is growing beyond that.
Determine the shape you want it to be and trim accordingly. We like round the tops on our fruit trees so we trim everything that breaks the shape pattern we’ve developed.
If you tie a young tree to a framework or other support, remove all the side branches except for those closest to the trunk. This will ensure that it becomes a sturdy tree with strong scaffold limbs (the main branches coming off the trunk).
Pruning away excess growth can also help keep your fruit trees healthy by removing pest and disease sites.
Once you have successfully identified which branches to prune, remove them starting from the bottom and working up.
Remove all pruning debris from the area. This will prevent the spread of any disease present and will keep the area from attracting any disease to the limb pile and spreading it to the trees.
If you want to use them in the compost piles you can. This will kill any pests and diseases they might contain and make the wood safe to use.
We often make piles and burn them in the garden so the ash is readily available there for spreading onto the soil.
A note to remember is that you should never cut more than 25% of the branches on any tree.
How to Prune
All cuts should be made at a 45-degree angle. This will allow for quick healing, and prevent damage from water and disease.
When you cut a branch, you should cut it on the side of the stem that is closest to the trunk of the tree. This will protect the stem and other branches from being damaged, and it will also allow the tree to heal more effectively.
You can use pruning shears for branches that are up to 3/4 of an inch in diameter. For branches that are bigger than that, use lopping shears or a hand saw. If the branch is really big, you can use a pole saw.
The best tool for pruning fruit trees is a pair of sharp pruning shears – these are much easier to use than smaller clippers. They make cleaner cuts and won’t damage the trees.
Summer Pruning Option
There are a growing number of people who prefer to prune their trees in the summer after they have finished bearing fruit. It seems this is a preference based on areas where late winter and early spring are exceptionally wet.
The ones I have talked to feel they get more fruit doing this and that it is a regional issue because of changing weather patterns.
I have no personal experience with this as I prune in mid to late February depending on the weather.
I just want to make you aware of the option so you can decide. It certainly won’t kill the tree if you choose to experiment on a few trees and see if there’s a difference in production for you.
What To Look For When Buying Pruning Shears
- Comfort – Using your hands for repetitive tasks can cause pain in your hand, elbows, and fingers. A comfort grip is helpful in avoiding this.
- You should find shears that fit comfortably in your hand. The shears should neither be too big nor too small. The handles shouldn’t dig into your skin if you encounter a tough branch.
- Quality Blades – The blade of the pruning shears is very important. The blade needs to be sharp so that it can cut through the branches easily.
- It’s important how long the blades stay sharp. Higher quality shears come with more durable blades that last longer and don’t need sharpening as often, if at all.
- Better blades are also resistant to rust and corrosion. A non-stick coating will help with cleaning the sap that sticks to the shears, but I find it doesn’t work that great.
- Look for high tempered steel or carbon steel to get the best results. Shears that have high tempered carbon steel, are excellent.
- Safety Lock Mechanism – Any tool with blades should be used safely. While the pruning shears may not be the same as a knife or other blade, it’s a good idea to buy a pair with a safety lock to avoid accidents.
- Adjustable Cutting Diameter and Tension – If you want more control over how you cut branches, pruners with adjustable ranges are a good choice. Some models have dual adjustment mechanisms that let you change both the cutting diameter and the blade tension.
- If you want to save money, you can buy one adjustable pruner that can be used for both thick and thin branches. This way, you don’t have to buy two different pairs.
- Lightweight – You need lightweight shears that allow you to reach above your head without straining or exhausting you after finishing just one plant. Find a pair that matches your own strength and agility.
- Spring Loaded Cutting Mechanism – This allows you to gain and retain greater leverage over branches. It is also easier to cut with them than with just my own hand strength.
There are many good pruning shears on the market to prune trees with. Finding the right ones for you is a matter of personal choice.
To help you, we share our top three choices of pruning shears in various price ranges.
Pruning Shear Recommendations
1.Felco F-2 Classic Hand Pruner
The blades are made of high-quality steel which is durable. They have an ergonomic design for better grip. They’re on the high end of the price range but are a quality pair of pruning shears sure to last for years.
- Rubber handles for good grip
- Spring loaded mechanism
- Safety lock
- Sharp, high quality blades
2.Fiskars Steel Bypass Pruning Shears
This time, we’re going in the opposite direction because while the previous pair of shears we looked at were costly and of high quality, these are considerably less expensive and are suited for pruning tasks 5/8″ or under.
- Lever handle
- Lightweight, ergonomic design
- Steel blades
- There is no safety lock
3.Gonicc 8” SK-5 Professional Anvil Pruning Shears
These shears are a high-quality mid-range alternative. They’re built with high carbon SK-5 steel blades that are guaranteed to stay sharp, and the unique pulley mechanism provides smooth cutting.
- High carbon steel blades for long life
- Stay sharp for long time
- Sping Loaded double lever mechanism
- Comfortable handles
- Double Slide Safety Lock
- Up to 3/4” cutting diameter
- Small cutting surface
We have to prune the blackberry bushes, the grapevines, the muscadine vines, blueberry bushes, peach trees, and others. So, we have a lot of pruning which, though they say, “Practice makes perfect.” I wouldn’t say I’m perfect at it. But our trees and bushes have proven we haven’t harmed them and they’re happy to provide loads of fruit.
The thing is, don’t be afraid. The most important thing to remember is to wait until late winter to do your pruning, but not too close to early spring.
If you cut the plant while the sap is still running, you will cause it to “bleed” to death (another term I learned from my grandfather).
If your trees or bushes are supported pruning is a good time to take a look at their supports to see if any repairs are needed.
Make sure all of your cuts are at 45-degree angles and use very sharp shears. These two things should ensure you don’t damage the tree.
Happy Pruning! As always, we’re here to help.