How To Prune Your Bare-Root Fruit Tree

We don’t sell bare-root fruit trees. I buy them, of course. But I prefer to prune them, pot them and sell them when they’re leafed out and rooted-in. It’s easier to plant that way,and I think it’s the best way to make sure more gardeners are successful. Here’s a list of the fruit trees we’re featuring for the spring of 2013.

Lately, though, I’ve gotten quite a few questions about how to prune from folks who may be shopping at Master Gardener sales or other community fundraisers, so here’s my two-cents worth. (I’m speaking specifically of deciduous trees now, trees that lose their leaves in the winter, including peaches, pears, apples and plums.) Bare-root fruit trees are generally sold when the trunk is less than 1″ thick. These trees are easier to prune and train into a good form than many older trees.

The goal of pruning a fruit tree is to maximize the quality and quantity of fruit in the long run. If you keep the long term in mind, it’ll be easier to whack off what can seem like a good chunk of a healthy tree. We prune to develop a sturdy scaffold of large, strong branches that can support lots of fruiting wood. We prune to maintain the health of the tree by removing diseased or damaged wood, or branches that will later lead to disease and damage. We prune to make it easier for us to harvest  fruit, now and in the  years to come. That’s it, really. There’s no magic about it, although you get better with practice.

Roots of a Pear Tree

Good, solid root system

When you buy a bare-root fruit tree, ensure that the roots stay moist until you are ready to plant. In our climate, it’s okay to plant them immediately and I recommend doing so. Every day that goes by is an opportunity for the roots to dry out or break, which can kill a young tree. When you’re ready to plant, start by examining the roots. Remove any broken or damaged roots. Now hold the tree out in front of  you and examine those roots. You want the top of the tree no more than one and half times the rough size of the the root system. Leaving too much growth on top overwhelms the roots. These trees may die in their first year or simply fail to thrive for several years until the roots catch up with the top. In the long run, more roots and less top actually produces a fruiting tree faster.

Roots of a Peach Tree

Broken roots should be removed.

If your tree is very small, say 1/2″ or so in diameter, you will make your cut about 25-30″ above the ground. You can look at your tree and see where the soil like marks the tree’s planting position in the field. You will plant it at the same depth in  your garden, or maybe just a tiny bit higher, to allow for settling. Use a yardstick if you want to be precise, or just estimate: the first cut should be at about the level of your knee.

Young Fruit Tree

Cut small trees back to about knee-high.

Cut just above a bud and make the cut on an angle. Cutting the tree here forces it to branch here. You want the branches low to make picking the fruit easier in the long run. It’s okay if there are no other branches at this time.

Budding Fruit Tree

This is a bud. Outward buds point away from the center of the tree.

If your tree is larger, between 3/4″ and 1″ in diameter, it likely already has some branching. Look for branching at about 25″” from the ground. Choose scafffold branches that have a good strong angle with the trunk, about 45 degrees. Leave 3-5 good branches here. Find the central stem or leader and cut it back by about half. Cut the remaining limbs back by about two-thirds. Make these cuts just above a bud and for branches, make sure the bud faces outward. The tree will branch here and you don’t want branches growing inward. You will probably not have room for another tier of branches, but if you do, make sure it is no closer than 24″ from the lower tier. Select 3-5 good branches at this height and cut them back by two-thirds. Remember to cut just above an outward-facing bud. The  reason we leave so much space in between the tiers is so that sunlight reaches all the branches while fruit is developing. This ensures a greater harvest in the long run.

Pruning Fruit Trees

Make an angled cut just above the bud.

Remove any branches that you have not selected for your scaffolds. I promise  – they will grow and you will put less stress on your root system this way. Pruning this way also promotes the development of new, fruiting wood.

Using Loppers

Larger trees require larger tools!

Most fruit trees should be kept relatively short so you can easily pick the fruit. In our climate, this means we need  to prune in the summer, too. As the trees mature, you will need to maintain a strong scaffold by removing dead or diseased branches, and branches that interfere with the even distribution of sunlight throughout the canopy of the tree. Stay tuned for more articles about summer pruning and maintenance pruning of fruit trees.

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