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Dormant fruit trees will bloom soon.

Deciduous fruit trees have no business in a low maintenance landscape. They need as much specialized pruning while dormant in winter as roses need, and on a much larger scale. Neglected trees get disfigured by the weight of their own fruit. Disease proliferates in their thicket growth that develops without pruning. Overgrown trees produce most of their fruit where no one can easily reach it. Fruit that can not be harvested attracts rodents.

Of course, deciduous fruit trees are certainly worth growing if they get the specialized pruning that they need. Pruning concentrates resources so fewer but better fruits develop. Fruit bearing stems are better structured to support the weight of their fruit, and lower so that the fruit is easier to reach. Pruning also promotes more vigorous growth, which is less susceptible to disease and insects.

Now that it is February, and the weather has been unusually warm, deciduous fruit trees that have not yet been pruned will need to be pruned very soon. They will be sensitive to such major pruning once they start to bloom. The pruning is too specialized to explain here in just a few sentences. Fortunately, Sunset publishes an very detailed book about “Fruit Tree Pruning” that explains how to prune each of the different fruit trees. Pruning will be more extensive each year as trees grow, but also becomes more familiar.

Stone fruits like apricots, plums, prunes, nectarines and peaches (that have hard seeds known as stones), need the most severe pruning. Their fruit develops on stems that grew last year. These stems should get cut short enough to support the weight of the fruit expected to develop next year. The ‘four Ds’, which are dead, dying, damaged and diseased stems, should get pruned out as well. Cherries and almonds do not get pruned as much because their fruit is so lightweight; and out-of-reach almonds simply get shaken down anyway.

Apples and pears are pomme fruits that need similar pruning, but also produce on stunted ‘spur’ stems that should not be pruned away. Spurs may continue to be productive for many years. Figs, persimmons, pomegranates, mulberries and grapevines all need their own specialized styles of pruning.

3 thoughts on “Deciduous Fruit Trees Need Pruning

  1. I was just out in the garden pruning our older crabapple. As you have said, it’s a challenge. I didn’t finish but I cut away quite a lot. Of course with this tree the primary concern is appearance. I’m reluctant to cut off lots because I think of all the flowers and fruits that will never be. But today I was fairly ruthless, and so far I think the tree looks better for it. One question I have: how would you distinguish a spur from a sucker?

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    1. They are completely different animals. Suckers are actually below the graft, so you are likely referring to ‘watersprouts’, which look similar, but are vigorous shoots elsewhere in the canopy. They often develop from where something major was pruned back, particularly if a stub was left. A spur does not elongate like a watersprout, so stays rather stout and gnarly instead of elongated and sleek. Slender watersprouts can be cut back to short stubs that can bloom down low, although they will likely generate more watersprouts afterward. (The secondary watersprouts get pruned back in the same manner the following year.) We refer to the pruned back stubs as sprus, but they are physiologically different. Spurs can be productive for several years without elongating much.

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