Pruning Fruit Trees

Posted on May 17, 2023

tree pruning workshop leader, standing in front of a tree

I got the opportunity to take a workshop on how to prune fruit trees! Here are the notes I took during that workshop. This advice is somewhat specific to the Midwest/ NE Ohio

Philosophy of Pruning

  • More Light and Air
  • More light means more fruit
  • Good airflow prevents disease
  • Control/promote growth
  • Trees want to be pruned
  • Makes remaining fruit bigger and tastier because there is limited sugar


  • Wipe down tools with alcohol between trees and especially when dealing with disease
  • Remove old fruit, fruit is a disease vector
    • both mummified fruit still on the branches, and also fruit on the ground
  • Black nut
    • Looks like a burnt tumor
    • Can kill an entire tree
    • Always prune before anything else, remove at minimum the diseased portion of the branch
  • Cytospora Canker (I think? I may have misheard)
    • looks like a messed up drippy branch
    • not as big a deal


  • ideally, prune before dry spell
    • the forcast should show no rain for the next 3-ish days
  • Prune early to get the growth done before fruit time
  • Put compost around tree in the fall.

Biennial bearing

  • Sometimes you get a lot of fruit one year and almost none the next year.
  • Cut off half the blooms. Breaks the cycle of extra.
  • When to do this depends on what they did last year, it’s a vibe. you’ll get to know your trees.

Tree Shapes

It’s really hard to convert between the two, you have to kinda commit.

  • Vase
    • open center
    • classic fruit tree shape
    • common in home orchards
    • good for short trees
  • Central Leader
    • Christmas tree shape
    • branches in distinct layers
    • requires
      • a very straight trunk
      • no large splits in the main trunk
      • very horizontal branches

How to Actually Prune

  • Don’t take out more than 1/3rd of tree per year
    • removing too much would shock the tree, which can reduce production or kill the tree
  • Keep tree short for your convenience
    • If you need room to mow under the tree, it may also make sense to remove low hanging branches.
  • Make flat smooth cuts
    • Motorized saw will make a more ragged cut, its smoother done by hand
  • Cut right after a branching point. a diagram showing to cut after a branch splits in two
  • Think of it like a highway,
    • you can’t go from a 4 lane highway to a 1 lane highway, you have to go from a 4 to a 3 to a 2 to a 1
    • in the same way, you have to gradually reduce the branch size.
    • you also shouldn’t chop off a large branch so the highway just ends. ideally, there is a similar size branch right there for the energy to go into.
    • Energy needs somewhere to go. Not hard and fast rule though.
  • For large cut, cut at an angle with the apex pointing towards where you want new branch to go.
  • The base of a branch is wrinkly. it contains healing cells, cut after that part
  • Keep tree balanced
  • The tallest part will keep being the tallest part unless we stop it
  • Neglected trees will have more drastic cuts, managed trees will have smaller cuts
  • Very very hard to prune a tree so much it dies

Notes on specific kinds of trees

  • Cherries are jerks, they want to get real tall
  • Plums are susceptible to black nut (apples are also in NE Ohio).
  • pears/apples tend to be central leaders
    • if you want them to be tall, central leader is great
    • if short, open center
    • they like to be upright

My Lessons

  • Trees are very resilient, and difficult to harm as long as you don’t prune more than 1/3rd of the total tree
  • Pruning make a tree healthier and produce more
  • Pruning is not particularly hard, or time consuming. 5-10 minutes per year for a dwarf tree
  • It’s about kinda knowing a tree and observing what it does when you prune it, over the years.

Overall, the whole process is was less scary than it seemed before!