It seems unfair that so many deciduous fruit trees are available without warnings that they need such specialized maintenance. They are certainly worth growing. Otherwise, not many of us would grow them. Yet, those of us acquiring fruit trees for the first time should be aware that, with few exceptions, deciduous fruit trees need specialized and meticulous pruning while dormant every winter.
The pruning these trees require is too specialized to explain in a few short paragraphs; but can be researched for each particular type of fruit tree. Sunset publishes an excellent book about ‘Fruit Tree Pruning’, that illustrates and explains the different types of pruning that each different fruit tree needs. Pruning is the sort of thing that gets better with experience; so even though the pruning gets more involved over the years as the trees grow, the procedure becomes more familiar.
Without pruning, deciduous fruit trees produce more fruit than they can support, which disfigures and breaks branches as the fruit matures and gets too heavy. Even if limbs do not break, overabundant fruit is often of inferior quality because the trees that produce it exhaust their resources. Fruit of well pruned trees may not be as abundant, but is typically better. Besides, pruning is good arboricultural hygiene, keeping trees vigorous and more resistant to disease.
The stone fruits probably need the most severe pruning. These are fruits like apricots, plums, prunes, nectarines and peaches, that have hard pits or ‘stones’. They develop fruit on stems that grew during the previous year. Generally, these stems need to get cut back short enough to support the weight of the fruit that will develop in the next season. Dead, dying, damaged and diseased stems, known as the four ‘D’s, should be pruned out completely.
Cherries and almonds are the exceptions to the generalization about severe pruning for stone fruit, since the trees can support the weight of the fruit. They only need pruning to eliminate the four ‘D’s and to limit height. Because almonds get shaken from their trees instead of picked, they are often allowed to get quite tall, and can even function as small shade trees. Peaches are the opposite extreme since their fruit is so large and heavy, necessitating the harshest pruning.
Pomme fruits like apples and pears need similar but somewhat different pruning, which preserves stunted ‘spur’ stems that produce fruit low on older stems for many years. Like cherries, certain pears may not need much pruning. Certain apples need more pruning than others. Again, the needs of particular trees are best learned from experience.