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Pruning - Pruning Examples

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Pruning a Neglected Tree

A tree that has been left unpruned for a number of years will have an overgrown and dense canopy. Watersprouts in the top of the tree grow to tall heights that cannot be reached by most ladders. Watersprouts on lower limbs grow into major branches that heavily shade the interior. The lowest branches receive the least amount of sunlight and can become weak and eventually die. To correct these problems, it is best to make the necessary large and numerous pruning cuts over a period of two to three years. Severely pruning a vigorous tree all at once will stimulate more vigorous growth that can add to the problem instead of correcting it. A general rule for pruning vigorous trees is to remove no more than one third of the tree canopy each year. For most trees, this amounts to two major limbs and 50% of the smaller branches. Weak trees will tolerate more severe pruning without becoming overly invigorated.

an apple tree being pruned

An old and neglected apple tree at the Saint Croix Island Historic Site near Calais, Maine (photo by Meg Scheid).

an old apple tree that has been pruned

The same apple tree after it has been pruned (photo by Meg Scheid).

an unpruned pear tree

A pear tree that has not been pruned in a number of years.

a pruned pear tree

The same pear tree after renovation pruning over a three-year period.

An efficient approach is to make the most severe pruning cuts first and to finish with small, detailed pruning cuts. A general order for pruning would be to remove one or two big limbs, all of the watersprouts and any dead branches in the first year. Where two limbs are growing in close proximity to each other, remove one to make more room for the other. In the second year, remove additional limbs as needed and most or all of the new watersprouts that grow from the previous years’ pruning cuts. Smaller branches that are crowding others should also be removed. New branches that grow at a horizontal angle can be kept as a replacement of older, unproductive or dead branches. Continue this process until no more limbs need removal. Watersprouts may need to be removed on an annual basis.

Pruning Pears and Stone Fruit Trees

Stone fruit (peach, plum, apricot, cherry) and pear trees are pruned using an open center system. Keep the center free of vigorous growth by removing branches that grow in that direction. Remove branches that are directly underneath or above another. If the tree has too many limbs, remove some with thinning cuts. Upright branches on pear, Japanese plum and peach can be expected to bear fruit and eventually bend over with the weight. Upright branches can be kept as replacements of branches that have bent below a horizontal angle or are unproductive for other reasons. If the limbs become too long and grow into neighboring trees, they can be headed back to a side branch. European plum, apricot and cherry branches are stiff and remain upright rather than bending horizontally. Limbs on these trees can be headed back to just above a lateral branch to keep them at a manageable height.

a cherry tree before pruning

A cherry tree before it has been pruned.

a cherry tree after pruning

A cherry tree after pruning.

Peaches may have numerous dead branches which should be removed each year. Peaches can also be pruned with a plan for getting a head start on fruit thinning since they bear flower buds along the shoots that grew in the previous spring and summer. If the winter has been mild and most of the flower buds survive, thin out as many as 50% of the shoots to reduce the need for fruit thinning in summer. If the winter has been severe and many of the flower buds have died, avoid pruning out shoots in order to retain as many flowers as possible.

Two Styles of Pruning

The two different types of pruning cuts result in a differing appearance after pruning that is readily visible in dormant trees, but less so during the growing season when the canopy has leafed out. The style to follow depends on personal preference. To maintain the natural growth habit, make primarily thinning cuts when removing limbs and branches. Thinning cuts are effective in opening up the canopy to sunlight without altering the natural shape of the tree. However, a tree pruned entirely with thinning cuts may remain taller and wider than desired. A few well-planned heading cuts can shorten the tree without drastically changing its natural shape. Heading cuts alter the natural appearance, but are very effective in shortening the height and width of a tree. A pruning style that consists of mostly heading cuts will give the tree a cultivated appearance.

pruning a pear tree

Thinning cuts do not alter the natural appearance.

pruning an pear tree

Heading cuts can alter the natural appearance of fruit trees, but are effective at shortening the height.


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