Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Winter Pruning of Fruit Trees


 The dormant season from November to March is the perfect time to tackle the winter pruning with   pruning saw, loppers and secateurs. Other garden tasks have been put on hold while we wait on better weather once all the snow melts, but pruning is mostly above ground level so deep snow and frost are no obstacle as long as you have warm clothing and the promise of some hot pumpkin or beetroot soup once the job is complete.
Pruning fruit trees and bushes has always been seen as a skill beyond most amateur gardeners and only acquired after good training and years of practice. Even in professional circles I have found great gardeners who never did break down the mystery of pruning. One expert propagator highly regarded for his skills in raising plants never got his gooseberry bushes to bear any fruit.
In reality the principles of pruning are similar for all fruit production although each type has its own needs.

I try to keep my pruning very simple and may not follow the book. I leave that to those undergoing training, who have to follow the Royal Horticultural Society precise methods so they understand the principles and get through their exams.
Then there is the commercial growers who wish to produce quality fruit with high yields, but with the minimum of labour input and aimed at producing trees that can all be picked from the ground.
My methods combine RHS principles applied with a simplified version of commercial practice.
My first aim is to produce a strong well shaped tree or bush, then prune lightly to encourage a balance of fruiting wood and replacement shoots. These must be well spaced to allow light into the tree to ripen up young wood so it can initiate fruit buds.
Pruning also removes weak growth, diseased shoots, crossing branches, branches broken with heavy crops or just too near the ground.

Apples and Pears
Pruning method varies depending on whether the trees are bush, cordon, espalier, stepover or fan trained. All of these can be spur pruned by summer and winter pruning. Cut back all side shoots to five or six leaves in mid summer, then again back to two buds in winter to encourage formation of fruiting spurs. In time reduce the size of these spurs otherwise you may get too many fruits at the expense of size.
Leading main shoots are reduced by a third in winter.
My apple and pears are grown as bushes so I do not spur prune them. I carry out replacement pruning of fruiting branches which have got too old and bent down with heavy cropping. This is done with loppers and saw, not secateurs, and I always look for a young shoot to replace the branch being removed.
If the tree becomes too vigorous, I do not feed in spring, but at the end of August. This feed is too late to encourage fresh growth so the tree uses it to build up fruit buds. Late pruning once spring growth has just started will also help to curb an over vigorous tree.


These are always pruned in summer to minimize the risk of Silver leaf disease. The spores of this disease are around from late autumn to late spring and could penetrate any cut surface.
Form a well balanced tree with five or six main branches in the early years. Plums tend to crop heavy and pull limbs down, so replacement pruning is perfect for them. There is usually plenty of young shoots to replace any limbs removed. Replacement pruning is carried out as required and not necessarily every year.


These are usually fan trained against a warm south facing wall or fence, so pruning is carried out to keep the tree in this shape, and allow ample sunlight onto the ripening fruit. Fans have four main branches on each side. These are constantly being replaced by young shoots that are allowed to grow for one year producing new fruit buds that overwinter to make the following years crop. To allow sunlight into the centre of the tree remove all unfruitful shoots in late winter and during summer prune out weak growth, upright shoots and any showing signs of disease. Remove some foliage around the fruit in summer to help colour up the fruit.


Summer fruiting types fruit on canes produced the previous year. These are removed after cropping or in winter and the new shoots tied in. If the variety produces a lot of canes thin these out so that canes are spaced out at four inches apart tied along the top wire with a running knot.
Autumn fruiting types are cut down to ground level every winter as they fruit on new canes.

Blackberry (Bramble)

These are similar to summer fruiting rasps but the canes grow a lot bigger so have to be tied in to a wire framework where they are looped up and down to save space. Train the new canes up the centre and above the fruiting canes to keep them out of the way.
Tayberry and Loganberry is pruned the same way.


Immediately after planting cut the new bush down to a couple of buds on each shoot. These prunings can be used as hardwood cuttings to grow into more bushes. Blackcurrants fruit on one year old shoots and older wood. Prune after fruiting or in winter by cutting some older branches down to ground level or to a young shoot coming from near the base. Aim to replace all growth over about four or five years.

Red and White currants

These can be grown as a bush or a cordon as they fruit best on spurs. Allow the bush to form an open centre with about six main shoots. In early summer cut all side shoots to about six inches then in winter further reduce these to two buds. After a few years start to replace one or two main shoots every year with new young shoots.


These fruit very easily as long as bullfinches don’t go pecking out the buds in spring. Pruning is mainly to make picking easier, so keep the centre open and also remove any low trailing shoots otherwise soil could splash the fruits. Remove any crossing shoots and overcrowded areas.

Saskatoons and Blueberries

Saskatoon  fruit bushes produce berries on all wood, so pruning is only carried out after several years to keep the plant down to an easy height for picking. Every year remove a branch down to ground level to encourage new sucker growth to keep the bushes young.
Blueberries also require little pruning for the first few years as they are quite slow growing. In later years cut some older branches down to younger shoots coming from the base or lower down the plant to rejuvenate the bush.

Grape vines

In Scotland these are either grown under glass or on a sheltered south facing warm wall. Under glass grow them on single upright rods spaced about eighteen inches apart and in winter cut every shoot back to one or two buds of the main rod. Shoots emerge from these spurs and form small fruit bunches. Allow these to grow then prune them to two leaves after the bunch. Then for the rest of the growing period cut all other growths to one leaf. In early autumn thin out more shoots and leaves to let sunshine ripen the fruit. Pruning wall trained vines outdoors is just the same, though grow them on a well spaced framework of main branches rather than rods.


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