• Emily

For the Good of the Tree

Updated: Apr 2, 2021


plum tree branches against a blue sky

We finished the pruning today, a full month after we had intended. Part of learning to live resiliently is accepting that things rarely go as planned, and being at peace with the ever-changing schedule. It's an art--one we haven't mastered yet. But late is better than never, and it was a relief to get it finished.

Pruning usually happens in February on our homestead, as it did last year. Timing depends upon whether there is still snow on the ground. While it is certainly possible to prune trees in snow, it is less than optimal. As soon as the ground is bare enough for good footing, pruning can start.

a fresh pruning cut on a fruit tree branch

We have an assortment of fruit trees sprinkled throughout the homestead's garden: apples, Asian pears, plums, apricots, and peaches. There are hazelnuts, almonds, and walnuts, too. Each tree has a different growth habit and different preferences regarding pruning. For the first few years after we got fruit trees, we did very little pruning, paralyzed by the complexity of knowing how much was enough, how much was too much, and what each tree needed.

After researching and reading some excellent resources like Michael Phillips' book The Holistic Orchard (available from Chelsea Green Publishing), and Grow a Little Fruit Tree, by Ann Ralph, we decided it was time to get started. With each species of tree, it is a good idea to research the best pruning practices, but there are common themes that can get even the most timid pruner started.

an apple tree silhouetted against the sunshine


Even though it may be tempting to leave a tree to be its "natural self," the best thing you can do is prune and train it. Like all members of our homestead, the trees have a job to do. In reality, if you don't prune your trees, they will overshadow themselves and develop unproductive (or even dead) limbs. Without some training, modern cultivars will overproduce what their limbs are able to support, causing the limbs to split away from the trunk or break completely off. (Interesting how the same could be said of our own natures if they are utterly untrained. Training--and pruning--in our lives is a gift, not a curse. It helps us to be our most productive and healthy selves.)

Most beginning pruners fall into one of two camps: too little or too much. If you are in the "too little" camp, your trees will end up unruly and potentially self-damaging because of their untamed growth.

the dormant persimmon tree in the greenhouse


If you are a homestead fruit grower with only a few trees, you can afford to be selective about what you cut off. It is just as dangerous--if not more so--to take too much off your tree at a time as to not prune at all. A good rule of thumb is to take no more than 25% of the tree's canopy during pruning each year. This gives your tree time to heal and produce new growth in the space you opened up.

There are always exceptions to the rule. There may be times when you need to make significant changes to a tree's structure or are bringing an old, overgrown tree back into production. Even in those instances, though, it's a good idea to make the changes over three to four years so that the tree is not overwhelmed by your efforts.

buds about to open on an apricot tree


My primary concern with pruning later than usual this year was that the trees would have already broken dormancy and begun putting energy into their buds. By pruning late, I would risk wasting energy that the tree had already expended.

A note on fruit tree biology: Each summer as the season of production finishes, the tree moves gradually toward dormancy, starting in late summer and eventually reaching full dormancy after cold weather sets in. During this dormant period, the tree is conserving energy and accumulating chill hours that it needs in order to produce during the following season. It will only break dormancy when it has had sufficient chill hours and the weather warms. When this happens, it begins putting energy into new growth again.

The energy graph of a fruit tree's seasonal cycle would look like a bell curve, with energy output gradually increasing until the peak of production season and then declining again. If you prune during dormancy, you are not cutting away any expended energy, and the tree will concentrate its growth on the remaining branches. Alternatively, if you want to limit the tree's growth, you will prune it during dormancy and the peak of its production season. This will, in essence, "cut away" a large portion of the energy it has expended, keeping it a manageable size for a small space. As a general rule, most people should prune only during the dormant season so that the tree's energy is focused completely on new growth, budding, and fruiting.

a fresh pruning cut on a plum tree

Principle #4: GO WITH YOUR GUT

Whether or not you have experience with pruning, most people know what a nicely shaped tree looks like. Prune your tree the way you want it to look using common sense. Here are some pointers:

an apple branch trimmed above an outward-facing bud
  • If a branch is growing toward the center of the tree, cut it out. You want sunshine to reach the center of the canopy.

  • If a branch is broken or diseased, cut it back to a bud that points the direction you want it to grow.

  • If a branch grows in a direction you don't like, cut it off. This may mean cutting it off completely (e.g., if it is growing toward the wall of a building) or heading it back to just beyond a bud that points in a better direction.

  • If a branch crosses another branch and will rub or cause problems in the future, cut it off or head it back to a bud below the crossing.

  • If a branch is getting too tall, cut it off at a bud that faces away from the center of the tree. This will encourage the branch to put out new growth in the direction you want and prevent it from shooting skyward.

pruning cuts on the top branches of an apricot tree

As you follow these pointers, remember your 25% limit and don't take off more than your tree can handle. It has taken several years to get some of our trees to the structure we want. That's okay. Pruning--like everything else in life--is a process that takes learning and gets easier with time.

If you understand these four guidelines, you already know enough to get started on your fruit trees. Give yourself grace as you learn. You and the tree are both on a journey that takes several seasons of growth.

apricot buds about to open on the homestead tree

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