Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
March, 2002
Regional Report

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Typical to the Midwest, the day after I pruned my Liberty apple, we were blanketed with snow.

Pruning Fruit Trees

I took advantage of unusually warm temperatures the other day to prune my fruit trees. I have several apples and pears that were all planted three years ago. All fruit trees need at least some pruning to help them develop into strong, productive trees.

Pruning thins out the bearing limbs so the trees produce fewer but larger fruits, it gets rid of unproductive, old wood, and it lets light and air into the center of the tree for healthy fruit production. Each type of fruit tree has its own natural form, and following this form will lead to an attractive tree that generally needs pruning only once a year.

The best pruning method for high production on dwarf and semi-dwarf apple and pear trees is the central leader method. Essentially a tree is pruned to have one central trunk and side or scaffold branches evenly spaced around the center leader. A modified central leader system can be used on standard-sized trees, where the central leader is cut back yearly to keep the tree shorter. (Cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and plums do best with a different method known as "open center" pruning.) Here is the yearly sequence of pruning:

Year One
In the first year of a young tree, select three to four scaffold branches about four to eight inches apart, evenly spaced in a spiral around the central leader. Prune out all other branches. Cut back the central leader to about four to six inches above the topmost scaffold branch. Through the summer, allow a new central leader to emerge, and remove any shoots that arise from the trunk.

Year Two
In the second year again cut back the central leader to about three feet above the lowest scaffold branch. Cut it just above a bud on the opposite side of the trunk from which the leader emerged last year. Head back the scaffold branches by cutting at an outward facing bud. You can also let some branches form more scaffolds if you wish. A well-pruned fruit tree will be shaped somewhat like a Christmas tree. Through the summer, remove shoots that arise within about eight inches of the newly emerging central leader.

Year Three
In year three prune the leader as in year two and slightly head back the scaffold branches. Thin out any unwanted branches and prune water sprouts and suckers in mid summer.

Year Four
In the fourth year the tree should be at its maximum height, so don't prune the central leader any more. You should also have a sturdy network of scaffold branches, so the tree will only need minor pruning from here on. With this method of pruning, fruits should soon be abundant!

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