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To Prune or not to Prune

The first time I pruned unsupervised it seemed an easy task. I began staring at a quince thicket. But then, with secateurs and chainsaw in hand, I quickly demolished the thicket to uncover the pear tree below (Quince is often used as the rootstock that pear trees (the sion wood) is grafted on to).

But in general, I tend to avoid this sort of drastic approach. Which isn't too difficult, as long as you initially establish the right shape, pruning in later years is fairly easy. However, if you leave it untouched for years, or prune it into the wrong shape, it can definitely become tricky and requires you to make more compromises around the shape of the tree.  

When first starting to prune, take your time, take a deep breath, and think before you cut. It's also worth remembering that you can often you train existing branches rather than make drastic cuts to get the shape you desire.

And if in doubt, step back, look at the overall shape, and think. It's definitely easier to take more off than put branches back on. 



When to prune: summer vs winter 

Fruit trees can be pruned both in summer and winter. Winter pruning is generally best done in July through August, and should be done before the buds begin to swell too much.

Summer pruning happens after the tree has finished fruiting (so depending on the variety this may actually be early autumn), and there are a few advantages over winter pruning.

However, winter pruning is definitely easier to do. The bare branches make it easier to see what's happening. And as long as you're careful and choose a good day, disease and infections aren't that likely.

In general, I'd recommend pruning in winter for structure, and in summer to help control the size and to trim out any damages, dead or diseased branches. Pruning in summer is also generally recommended for stonefruit (peaches, plums and apricots). However, even with stonefruit I'd still try and get the initial shape right immediately after planting as this tends to help the plant grow in the right shape from the get-go.


What you'll need:



Pruning Saw

Pruning Paste/Paint

Methylated Spirits- Avoid spreading diseases by sterilising blades with meths between each cut. I put mine in a little sprayer to make it easier to apply.


Other useful items:

Pole Tree Pruner (allows you to prune high up branches without a ladder)

A sturdy A-frame ladder (If you do need a ladder, be careful as it can be dangerous).

Sharp penknife or Stanley Knife.


Note: All these tools should be sharp to ensure that your cuts are nice and neat. If they aren't and you need help sharpening you can drop your tools in to your nearest Kings Plant Barn and make use of our sharpening service.


Tips for getting started


The basics

Cuts should be made at a 45° angle sloped away from the bud. The lower end of your cut should end opposite the bud.





Pruning shapes




Shape generally used for apples and pears.


Pruning and training


Modified central leader

Prune and shape in the same way as the central leader. However, when the tree starts getting close to the height you want, cut out the main trunk. This creates more branching and will allow you to keep the tree slightly smaller.





Pruning and training

First Year

Subsequent years




Pruning and training

  1. String up 2 wires between two posts - first wire should be around knee height, second should be around waist height.
  2. Plant tree in the middle.
  3. Cut out dead, damaged and diseased wood.
  4. Select the branches that will form your espalier. Branching should start well below the wire so that you don't damage them when you tie them on the wire. Prune out all other branches.
  5. When branches are pulled below 45° growth slows down. You can use this mechanism to ensure that branches grow evenly by pulling down longer branches first and leaving smaller ones to grow.



Top tips for healthy productive trees

Apples and pears



Some varieties of trees may biannually bare if they crop too heavily. This can be avoided by thinning out some of the fruit (cutting some of the fruit off before it develops).


Spur-bearing trees 

Most varieties of apple trees and all pears form fruit on fruiting spurs that form on older wood. You can encourage the formation of fruting spurs and fruit by tying down the branches down below 45°. When branches grow upwards at an angle of more than 45° the tree puts more energy into vegetative growth, under 45° more energy goes it producing fruit.

After the tree has borne fruit for more than 4 or 5 years then it may become necessary to cut approximately a quarter of the spurs to allow new growth


Tip-bearing Trees

Some varieties of apple trees fruit more heavily on the tips, i.e, the slender shoots that were grown last summer. Varieties that sometimes bare more heavily on the tips includes Granny Smith, Blenheim Orange, Peasgood Nonesuch, Worchester Pearmain, Gala, Kid's Orange, Oratia Beauty (aka Gravenstein), Fuji, Royal Gala, Prime, and Sir Prize.  

When pruning these varieties it may be worth limiting how much of last year's growth you prune out as this may hamper the tree's ability to produce fruit. 


Peaches, plums and nectarines



Prune to open up the tree as allowing airflow through helps reduce your chance of fungal diseases (such as brown rot).

Peaches fruit on one year old wood, so be careful not to prune out all the new growth when pruning (as this is where the tree will fruit from next season). However, if you don't prune enough you may find that next year there is less new growth for your tree to fruit from.

Rake up any leaf fall, as peaches can harbor leaf curl and other fungal infections such as brown rot.

Unfortunately eliminating fungus problems on peaches in Auckland's climate is nigh on impossible, but if you choose appropriate varieties, good sites, prune carefully, and spray with liquid copper when necessary, then a good crop of peaches is still possible.


Other trees

Most other fruit trees are best pruned in winter, though some like feijoa, persimmons and citrus generally require little in the way of pruning.

If you do need to prune a citrus tree, try to avoid doing so in summer as this is when citrus borer is active, and pruning increases their vulnerability. If breakages make pruning necessary, ensure you quickly cover up the cut with a pruning paste.



Any questions?

Still not sure? Come in-store and ask an expert or email