by Bob Westerfield    

Orchard photo by Jeremy Wrenn.

Many gardeners envision a perfectly manicured home orchard with fresh peaches, apples, pears and other assorted fruits available throughout the season for the picking. Some folks run out and purchase various fruit trees, stick them in the ground, and expect an abundant crop to instantly manifest itself. The truth of the matter is, a lot of these misguided gardeners fail to realize the amount of work that is involved in order to accomplish the harvest they envision.

This young fruit tree is being pruned properly to open up the center and encourage more lateral branching.

Most fruit trees are purchased as young container-grown or bare-root stock, and they must be trained from day one by proper pruning in order to reach their full potential. The first few years of a young fruit tree's growth are critical. Most young fruit trees should be pruned back to a single whip and then encouraged to branch in subsequent years. The pruning style depends on the type of fruit tree growth. Typically, stone fruits such as peaches and plums are pruned in such a way as to create a bowl shaped plant leaving the center open. Other fruit trees such as apples, pears and persimmons, should be trained early on to form a central leader with evenly spaced lateral branches. Most fruit trees require annual pruning and some light maintenance pruning throughout most of the season. Heavy pruning should be done during the dormant season in the months of January through early March. Regular pruning not only encourages healthy growth, but actually helps the plant to produce more fruit. Unfortunately, many folks fail to either prune properly or completely neglect their fruit trees after planting as they discover the somewhat intensive labor requirements. Over several years, these neglected plants can grow into wooly mammoths, and it can take considerable effort in order to bring them back into production.

In my travels, I have seen several fruit trees that were so overgrown, they were almost unrecognizable. Many of these trees have declined so severely that to rejuvenate them would not be worth the effort. As the song says, "You need to know when to hold them and know when to fold them." If your fruit tree is full of dead branches and covered in moss or lichen, it is probably better to just get out the chain saw and remove the tree. It would be a much cheaper and simpler solution just to purchase some new, healthy, young trees and start over. If, however, you feel your fruit trees are still healthy, but perhaps just suffering from missing a few years of haircuts, then all hope is not lost. By following a few simple tips, you should be able to get your overgrown fruit tree back to size and producing better than ever.

Most neglected fruit trees are going to need fairly severe pruning, so plan to do this during the dormant months we mentioned earlier. It really helps if you've got some quality tools on hand to do the job properly. When it comes to pruning equipment, I never skimp and always try to purchase the best I can. You will need, at a minimum, a good pair of hand shears, some strong lopping shears, a handsaw, possibly a pole pruner, and potentially a chain saw. The hand shears will handle branches up to about half an inch in diameter. The lopping shears can tackle branches up to about 2 inches. The handsaw and possibly the chainsaw will remove anything above 2 or 3 inches in size. The pole pruner can be used to remove branches that are far out of reach from the ground or that cannot safely be reached from a ladder.

Root stock suckers of a pear tree need to be pruned out as soon as possible so they don't take over.

When fruit trees become overgrown, a common problem that occurs is the root stock sends up shoots from the root system, and they begin to grow into the grafted upper part of the tree. When this occurs, folks often complain about having a tree that produces a multitude of tiny fruit that are nothing like the variety they may have enjoyed in earlier seasons. What is actually happening is the root stock, which is an entirely different plant than the grafted top of the tree, has begun to exhibit dominance and often produces a less-than-desirable crop. Carefully inspect your neglected fruit tree at the base to determine what is truly the grafted portion and what is the root stock gone wild. Sometimes it's very easy to tell, and other times the root stock grows so closely to the grafted portion, that they tend to blend together. Begin your revitalization of your neglected fruit tree by removing all advantageous root shoots at the ground level. Carefully fish these root stock shoots out and away from the existing tree. Wear gloves and eye protection, as apples and pears have very sharp, thorn-like branches.

After removing all of the imposter root stock growth, it is time to tackle the main branches of the tree. It's best to stand back and visualize what the tree should look like, and then make a mental picture of which major branches should be removed. Remember that if it's a peach or plum, you'll probably have to remove a significant amount of inner, upright branches in order to achieve the bowl shape we mentioned earlier. As you are pruning your peach or plum, try to remove all branches that are growing upright, and prune off all but about one half of the branches that are growing horizontally. The key is to encourage primarily horizontal or lateral growth and to discourage upright shoots. Make clean cuts close to a main branch or just above a bud so that you leave no small stubs anywhere on the tree. Stubs that are left can easily decay and become avenues for disease and insects to penetrate. When pruning, look out for any problem branches that cross or touch each other, and remove one or the other. Any damaged or diseased branches should also be removed at this time. Central leader type trees, such as pears and apples, may need to be topped a little bit in order to bring them down to a manageable height. When doing this, however, you want to make sure you still have a central leader that remains for future growth. In order to see which lateral branches to remove, it's often best to get under the tree and look straight up at the top. What you would like to see eventually is four evenly spaced scaffold branches per tier of limbs. Remove all other vigorous growth and tip back all lateral branches about a third of their length. Ideally, what you'd like to see is a tree that has evenly spaced branches with several open pockets between them.

Having a home orchard of your own can be a very rewarding experience, providing fresh fruit and the ingredients for making a variety of fresh jams and jellies. Taking the time each year to provide maintenance and pruning will help ensure the success of your home fruit trees.

Overgrown pear tree. A pole pruner is used to reach tall branches in a pear tree.


Bob Westerfield is the Extension Consumer Horticulturist for the University of Georgia. Caley Anderson is a Horticultural Assistant working at the University of Georgia.


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Container Recipes for Sun and Shade
Barber Berry Farm
How to: Pruning Fruit Trees
Indoor Container Combinations
Upcoming Magazine - Highlights from September