Issue: February 2004

Prune and Train Fruit Trees to Increase Productivity

For productive fruit trees, pruning and training is almost as important as fertilizer and water. Winter is the time to start, because pruning is best done when trees are dormant.

Proper pruning and training will build a strong limb structure that can support a heavy crop and allow good light penetration for best fruit color and sugar content.

Pruning helps shape a tree. Without it, fruit trees become overgrown and unsightly. Fruit will be smaller and of poorer quality, and disease and insect problems will increase due to poor air circulation, poor light penetration and uneven pesticide applications. Poorly developed limbs can't support heavy crops, resulting in broken limbs.

Before pruning, select the proper tools. Choose a sturdy ladder that will remain stable on uneven ground. Use a folding saw, since it's easy to carry and efficient for cutting small and medium-sized limbs. Long-handled lopping shears can handle small diameter branches. Hand sheers are good for twigs.

Make sure all cut surfaces on the tree are smooth and clean to promote even healing of the wound. Don't cut too close to the trunk, because it can damage the tree and undercut bud growth. Also avoid cutting too far away, because it leaves stubs that can be difficult to heal. Most pruning cuts in New Mexico do not need to be painted with pruning ointments since the climate is so dry.

Begin training trees at planting. Most nursery stock have limited root systems. Cutting a third of the top growth back will help balance top growth with root growth, resulting in less stress. Cut most unbranched nursery trees to about two feet above the soil line. Leave only two or three well-spaced limbs on branched stock. Cut the branches back to 4 to 6 inches from the tree.

The most common training system for fruit trees is the multiple leader shape, which allows good light penetration. Remove excess shoots as the tree develops, leaving only three to four well-spaced limbs that grow outward at the crown and act as scaffold branches for further growth. Wide crotch angles where the limbs join the trunk will encourage stronger limbs.

As the tree matures, encourage outward growth to promote good light penetration. Remove limbs that cross over other limbs or rub on each other. Leave limbs that best complement the symmetry of the tree. Refrain from heavy pruning that may encourage water sprouts or suckers during the summer. These long shoots will appear on the trunk or major limbs and are unproductive. Remove them the following spring.

Other major training systems for fruit trees include the central leader and modified leader forms. The central leader system has a central trunk that rises up through the tree with limbs that radiate out from the trunk. The modified leader is allowed to rise higher than a multiple leader system, but is cut back eventually with several leaders rising from the top.

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For more gardening information, visit New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service publications world wide web site at

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.

Also Please join us on Southwest Yard & Garden, a weekly garden program made for gardeners in the Southwest on:
KNME-TV Albuquerque at 9:30 p.m. Saturdays,
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and KRWG-TV Las Cruces at 11:30 a.m. Saturdays (repeated at 1 p.m. Thursdays.)