Tree Facts: Pruning your fruit trees

Natalie Euler Natural Resource Specialist
Farm Forum

Pruning means removing parts of a tree in order to regulate shape and improve fruit production. Not all kinds of fruit trees are trained and pruned the same way, but most fit into three basic systems: central leader, modified leader and open center. It is best if pruning is done when fruit trees are young but even older trees can be improved.

There are three main hand tools that you need in order to prune fruit tree. Long-handled pruning shears or loppers are the most useful tools for almost all pruning jobs. Hand shears can be used on young trees and limbs of a half inch diameter or smaller. If many large cuts are to be made, a pruning saw should be used. Pruning saws consist of a wooden handle with an 8 to 15 inch curved saw blade with the teeth set wide with about 6 teeth per inch.

1. Central leader pruning – Cut back newly planted trees to a height of 30 to 36 inches. The uppermost bud remaining will grow into the central leader. During the following spring the central branch will continue to grow upward as a dominant leader. After the growing season select three to five wide-angled lateral branches along the leader and remove the others. Use wood or metal spreaders to spread branch crotches to approximately 60 degrees. Cut back the central leader each spring in order to induce lateral branching.

2. Modified leader pruning – Cutting back standard or full sized trees to 36 to 40 inches at planting. If branched 1 or 2 year old trees are planted, select up to four of the best lateral branches with wide crotches and prune off the rest. Leave the leader, or top lateral, about twice as long as the longest side lateral. The leader should be removed after the desired number of main branches have been selected. Spacers should be used to help develop wide angled crotches on scaffold limbs.

3. Open center pruning – Cut back a 1-year old tree to a height of 28 to 30 inches. Select two branches and leave only two or three buds on each, remove all other branches. By late June most buds on the tree will have developed into leaf rosettes or growing shoots. Select three lateral shoots to serve as scaffold branches. Cut back any shoots from these branches leaving only 2 or 3 inches of growth and remove all other branches. After the second or third season’s growth, the permanent shape of the tree should be well established.

Apple trees: Best when trained using either the modified leader or central leader system. Dwarf apple trees should be trained to a central leader. Semi-dwarf apple trees may be trained to either central leader or modified leader type of trees. Standard trees or full size should be trained to a modified leader system.

Pear trees: Should be trained to a modified leader with four or five main scaffold limbs. Select these branches early, remove the undesirable laterals and do very little more pruning during the first few years. Pruning cuts should be restricted to branches that severely rub each other and to water sprouts as they appear. Mature trees require little pruning other than to remove dead, broken and weak branches.

Peach and nectarine trees: Should be trained to an open center or vase system. An open center pruning system will result in the development of two to four scaffold branches. All scaffold branches are pruned to about equal in size, spaced as equally as possible around the trunk at a height 18 to 24 inches from the ground.

Other fruit trees: The modified leader system of training is most desirable for the sweet cherry tree. Tart cherry trees may be satisfactorily trained to either the modified leader system or to the open center system. European Plums, such as Italian Prune and Stanley, are best pruned and trained to the modified leader system. Apricot trees may be trained to either the modified leader or open center system.

My sources for this news release was the Utah State University Cooperative Extension Service. If you would like more information about “Pruning your fruit trees,” call Natalie Euler at the Conservation office at 605-244-5222, Extension 109 or by e-mail at