Winter pruning for fruit trees

by Emma Cooper

Credit: Venturout

Pruning is sometimes seen as one of the ‘dark arts’ of gardening, with complicated instructions and diagrams making it harder than assembling flat-pack furniture. But if you know why you’re pruning your fruit trees, and what you want to achieve, then it need not be such a stressful winter chore.

Why prune?

The main reasons for pruning a tree or bush is to remove dead and diseased wood, to improve the shape of the tree and to keep it under control, or in the case of a fruit tree -to improve its productivity. Many of these purposes are best achieved by summer pruning, which is used to train fruit trees, to control their growth, and to encourage fruit to ripen.

The aim of winter pruning is to encourage fruit trees to crop better – unpruned trees gradually become unproductive, and congested with old branches.

What should I prune, and when?

Winter pruning is carried out when the tree is dormant. That’s after all the leaves have fallen, and before new buds start to unfurl in spring. The best time is usually from November until February, but the mild autumn this year means many trees won’t be dormant until December. Winter pruning is only done for untrained apple and pear trees. Stone fruits (such as plums, cherries and apricots) should not be pruned during the winter, as it makes them more susceptible to silver leaf disease and bacterial canker.

What you’ll need

The first step to successful pruning is to ensure you have the right tools for the job. You’ll need clean, sharp secateurs and loppers. For thicker branches, a pruning saw may be necessary. Tall trees will require the use of a ladder, but make sure it’s stable and remember not to overreach – move the ladder to get to branches further around the tree.

How to prune

For both apple and pear trees, the first step in pruning is to remove any dead or diseased wood. Make clean cuts, just above a bud and sloping away from that bud. You’re aiming to give the tree an open goblet shape, so select a bud that’s facing in the direction where you’d like a new branch to form (See Figure 1). Any branches that criss-cross, or that are rubbing against each other, can be safely removed as well.

You can also reduce the height and spread of any branches that have grown too large. Cut them back to a vigorous, lower branch that’s at least one-third of the diameter of the branch you’re removing ( See Figure 2). Bear in mind that pruning encourages vigorous growth; if a tree has been neglected then it’s best to spread pruning over two or three years rather than trying to get it back into shape all at once.

For apple trees, you will need to check whether your variety is a tip- or spur-bearer. Most are spur-bearers, that is trees producing fruit on two-year old wood, on short, branched shoots ( See Figure 3). Such trees have a tidy, compact appearance. Cox’s Orange Pippin is an example of a spur-bearing apple. Once you have removed any dead wood, simply prune last year’s growth back by a third, to a bud facing in the right direction.

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In contrast, tip-bearing varieties tend to have an untidy and sparse appearance, as they produce few spurs and fruit forms at the tips of the last year’s long shoots. Bramley’s Seedling is one such tree. On main branches coming from the trunk, prune back last year’s growth to the first healthy-looking bud. Where you have laterals coming out from the main branches, leave them alone if they are less than 30 cm long. If they are longer, you can treat them like the main branches, and prune them back to a strong bud.

Pruning new trees

Winter is also the time to prune new apple and pear trees, to give them a good shape for the future. ‘Maiden’ fruit trees are a year old. They can be sold as ‘unfeathered’ maidens, which have a single stem, or ‘feathered’ maidens, which have some sideshoots. On unfeathered maidens, simply shorten the tree to 75 cm tall, ensuring that there are three or four healthy buds left to form new branches ( See first picture below). Do the same on feathered maidens, but then shorten the upper three sideshoots by two thirds, to an outward-facing bud. Remove any lower branches (See second picture below).

In the second year, remove the topmost shoot. Select three or four good shoots to form the main frawework of the tree (bearing in mind the goal of the open goblet shape) and remove any others. If the selected shoots are too tall, you can shorten them by a third. ( See third picture below)

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In succeeding winters, remove any shoots that are growing into the centre of the tree, and then follow the general winter-pruning advice given above.

What’s next?

Winter is also a great time to feed and mulch your fruit trees. Adding a mulch to the soil under the tree helps to conserve moisture in the soil and reduce competition from weeds. Use bulky organic matter, such as well-rotted manure, leaf mould or garden compost.

Apply fertilizers to moist soil – late winter and early spring is ideal. Apply a balanced fertiliser (at the rate specified on the packaging) to the tree’s rooting area, which is the soil just beyond the reach of its branches.

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