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Issue: February 2006

Prune Fruit Trees in Winter

February is a great time to prune fruit trees.

With plants still dormant, the lack of leaves makes it easier to see where to cut. In addition, because plants will soon begin growing again, pruning wounds made in winter will heal faster than those made in fall, when plants are going dormant.

Pruning is important to keep trees, shrubs and vines productive and to improve fruit quality. It reinforces plant health by removing broken, diseased or dead wood. It permits faster and more evenly distributed growth by leaving strong limbs in place that can support more fruit, and by allowing more light and air to reach lower branches. It also improves flowering and fruit production by rejuvenating fruiting wood. And, it makes spraying and picking much easier.

Good pruning begins with appropriate tools. Remove small branches with a pair of hand shears. For bigger branches, use loppers that offer more leverage. Use a folding saw on large limbs, or a pole saw for trees with branches that are hard to reach. Keep all blades and saws sharp to ensure clean cuts for rapid healing.

When cutting away twigs or small branches, make cuts flush against the limb or trunk to avoid leaving stubs. Stubs make it hard for plants to heal properly.

Use a three-cut technique to remove very large branches. First, make an undercut about half way through the branch at about four inches away from the trunk. Next, cut through the top of the branch about an inch away from the lower cut. The two parallel cuts will allow the branch to break-off smoothly without peeling bark off the trunk of the tree. Remove the remaining stub with a smooth cut flush against the trunk.

Begin pruning trees at planting. Cut bare root plants back to about two feet from the ground to balance top growth with the plants' limited root system. As plants grow, keep pruning to develop evenly spaced scaffold limbs that are structurally sound enough to support fruit. Allow enough space between branches and limbs for easy harvesting and to let sunlight and air reach lower limbs.

Allow limbs to originate from the trunk at 45-degree angles. Narrow crotches are often structurally weak. They tend to split under heavy crop loads as trees mature.

There are a couple of training systems to choose from. Under the vase or multiple leader system, train 3 to 5 main limbs to radiate out in all directions away from the trunk of the tree, about 2 to 3 feet from the ground. This will stunt upward tree growth and force the base limbs to grow outward from the trunk. As secondary branches grow on these base limbs, train them upwards to form an open vase shape. This system allows for good light penetration.

For small dwarf trees, try a central-leader system. As the tree trunk grows upward, train limbs to grow outward like a Christmas tree. This central axis system takes up less room than a vase training system. The shaded center, however, tends to produce less fruit.

Once the tree's basic shape is established after 3 or 4 years, only light pruning is required. Frequency will depend upon fruiting habits of each type of tree. Peaches often require heavier pruning since the fruit develops on twigs produced during the previous season. In contrast, apples often grow on spurs of branches that are 2 to 3 years old and require less pruning.

Like apples, sweet cherries grow on long-lived spurs and require less pruning. Sweet cherries, however, grow somewhat upright when young and need pruning to force new limbs out.

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For more gardening information, visit New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service publications world wide web site at http://www.cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h.

George W. Dickerson, Ph.D., is is a horticulturist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator.