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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.

  • Less chance of disease or infection
  • Reduces the vigour of any regrowth
  • It's easier to find a nice day (Auckland's winter isn't best known for sunny, dry days).

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

  • Prune on a dry day - if the trees are wet this increases your chance of spreading disease.
  • Know what shape you are aiming for when pruning. Generally speaking, prune and train plum and peach trees into an open-vase shape, and apples and pears into a central leader. Though there are a few other options, including modified central leaders, espaliers, and cordons that are better in some situations..
  • Get the shape right early. If you get the shape right early you'll make it much easier for your future self.
  • With the possible exception of the first year, where pruning hard can help establish a good shape, it's generally best to avoid pruning back by more than a 1/3.


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.



  • Start by cutting off dead, diseased and damaged wood.
  • You can shape how the tree will grow by carefully selecting the buds that are positioned and oriented in such a way that they should grow in the direction that you want.  I.e, if a branch needs to be brought down, choose a bud on the lower side of the branch, or if a branch needs to be brought round to make a more balanced tree, cut back to a bud on the side of the tree you want it to grow on.
  • When cutting larger branches, remove the weight by cutting further up the branch so that your cut doesn't tear. Make a clean cut and slope slightly downwards so that any water drains off of the cut. If necessary clean up any tearing with a sharp pocket knife.



Pruning shapes




Shape generally used for apples and pears.


Pruning and training

  • Cut out dead, damaged and diseased wood.
  • Remove any small secondary branches coming off a branch that are within a hands-span of the main trunk.
  • To increase fruit production train or prune branches so that they are growing at an angle of more than 45° off from the trunk.
  • Train by tying branches down below this angle using Jute Web and tying to stakes or by hanging large juice bottles full of water. My parents used to use the bottles as our dogs previously had a tendency to run into young branches that had been staked down and break them.
  • You can also achieve this angle by pruning branch back to a bud pointed downwards in the right direction.
  • Select branches that will form layers around the tree. Each layer needs around 50cm spacing, so prune out any branches that are too close together.


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.




  • Best shape for peaches, plums and nectarines.
  • Due to its open center, this shape allows lots of air and sunlight into the tree, which helps reduce the chance of getting any fungal problems, and makes it easier to harvest the fruit.


Pruning and training

First Year

  • Cut out dead, damaged and diseased wood.
  • Select 3 branches that are evenly spaced around the tree's circumference to start forming your vase. If you can, select branches from low down the trunk, to make subsequent pruning and harvesting easier.
  • Cut out the trunk back to your uppermost branch of your vase, and prune out any other branches.
  • Cut out any secondary branching off the 3 chosen branches that will grow into your vase or start to cross.

Subsequent years

  • Cut out dead, damaged and diseased wood.
  • Cut out any crossing branches.
  • Open the vase up by cutting the growing tips back to an outward facing bud on the underside of the branch, or by tying the branches down using jute webbing.




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 info@kings.co.nz