Fruit Trees: Summer Pruning vs. Winter Pruning

To grow the most varieties of fruit on my small suburban lot, I am experimentally trying a technique called Backyard Orchard Culture developed by the fruit tree-growers at Dave Wilson Nursery.

Proponents will tell you Backyard Orchard Culture or BYOC (“Bring Your Own Cherry? Citrus? Cherimoya?”) is a great way for space constrained gardeners to get the longest period of fresh eating fruit from their backyard, address pollination needs and avoid the hassles of full size trees.

Cynics may point out that it probably isn’t a coincidence that the largest fruit-tree growing company in the United States is encouraging people to plant four or more trees in the space where just one would normally be grown (what a profitable trend this would be for Dave Wilson, huh, if the demand for fruit trees quadrupled overnight?)

In Backyard Orchard Culture, pruning is not optional. You pick the mature height of the tree – typically 6 to 8 feet so that all pruning and harvesting can be done from the ground – and you keep it that size with frequent pruning. That’s the deal you make when you embark on the Backyard Orchard Culture method.

Fruit Tree Pruning

Luckily, pruning a fruit tree from terra firma is pretty easy. It’s when you have to haul out a ladder or use an extension pruner that things get annoying and likely to be put off, in my opinion. So I have not found maintaining my Backyard Orchard to be particularly difficult or time consuming. I just get out my hand pruners, walk to the orchard and start cutting things down to size. I can prune the core of the mini orchard – 16 trees (about to be expanded to 24) in about an hour, depending on how methodical I get.

I know a lot of people feel very intimidated by pruning. There seem to be two types of new pruners: those who are unwilling to cut anything out of a tree for fear that they will kill the tree, and those who will happily take a Sawzall to their tree and just whack away at anything. Both approaches lead to poor outcomes.

The truth is, good pruning of a fruit tree isn’t particularly difficult if you understand why you are doing it. I think one of the things that can make fruit tree pruning intimidating is the advice on how to prune, which always seems to come with a huge list of Dos and Don’ts that can leave the impression that pruning is the horticultural equivalent of defusing a bomb. But it’s not – more like the horticultural equivalent of cutting hair – and once you understand why you prune and how trees respond, you can get out to your own fruit trees and start making informed decisions about how you want to work with your trees.

There are as many ways to prune a tree as there are gardeners with Felcos. Everything in this article is based upon what I do based on my goals for high-density, size-limited fruit tree production. If you have stately 30-foot tall apple trees and 27 acres on which to grow, this stuff will probably not apply to you.

What The Backyard Orchard Culture Grower Wants

  • Healthy, long-lived, productive trees.
  • A long harvesting period of family-appropriate quantities of fruit.
  • Great quality fruit.
  • Backyard-appropriate size (small – think fruit bushes, not fruit trees!).
  • To never have to get out a ladder for any tree maintenance.

What A Fruit Tree – Any Fruit Tree! – Wants

  • To reproduce by making seeds.
  • To maximize captured sunlight and grow.
  • To balance its root mass with its leaf canopy (this is so important I’m going to talk about it in depth below).

How We Work A Fruit Tree To Meet Our Goals

  • We increase airflow and sunlight penetration into a tree for healthier trees less likely to be plagued by disease.
  • We guide the tree on where to add new growth by pruning out branches that go the wrong way and cutting branches at points of outward-facing buds (see note, below, for more on this).
  • We remove diseased wood and branches that invite wounds by rubbing against surfaces or each other.
  • We shape the tree with detail pruning during the dormant season (winter).
  • We keep the tree small with vigor-reducing pruning in summer.
  • We increase fruit size and quality by thinning baby fruits so that fewer, larger, uncrowded fruit mature.
  • We promote high fruit quality by reducing or promoting leaf cover over fruit, depending on climate. In hot summer areas, sun scald of fruit is minimized by allowing greater leaf-cover over fruit. In cool-summer areas, fruit ripening is encouraged by thinning leaf-cover over fruit clusters.

Summer Pruning vs. Winter Pruning Fruit Trees: Understanding Size-Limiting Pruning

Typically, fruit tree pruning is thought of as a dormant season (winter) activity. Almost all methods of training fruit trees require dormant pruning. Dormant pruning has some real advantages. When a tree has lost its leaves you can see the structure of the tree, you can make cuts to correct the shape more easily. So, with Backyard Orchard Culture, winter pruning is important. We want a strong, solid scaffold for our fruit trees, and this is achieved by careful detail pruning in winter.

But winter pruning is not about size control of the tree, and if you try to winter prune for size control you will quickly be in a terrible battle with your tree, because you will be sending it very mixed signals.

apple-tree-with-roots-hi (2)

To understand why, spend some time really internalizing this: trees strive to balance their root mass and their leaf canopy. From Spring through late Summer, a deciduous tree is actively growing both leaves and branches (the canopy) and its underground root structure. A tree can’t grow more canopy than its root structure will support, but it will do whatever it must to balance the two. Sometimes this means root dieback, sometimes this means canopy expansion.

But the tree’s goal is always to be top/bottom balanced – to keep its root mass and its leaf/branch mass about the same.

So, if you let a tree grow all summer without any pruning, the tree captures all that solar energy and converts this into a strong, expanded root structure. If you then aggressively prune a tree back during winter, in spring the tree “wakes up” and notices that it has a root system far larger than its pruned-down canopy needs. That’s out of balance, so – using the energy in that expansive root mass – the tree goes crazy trying to regrow its canopy as quickly as possible. The result is typically water sprouts, ugly, straight-up branches that a tree can grow quickly and hang a lot of leaves on.

From the tree’s perspective, winter pruning says, “All hands on deck! Time to regrow with vigor! Make more branches! Make more leaves!” With many shrubs and some trees this is exactly what you want. Think of a red twig dogwood with lovely bright red new growth. You encourage that new growth by being aggressive with your winter pruning. Aggressive to the point that you might just hack the whole thing to the ground every few years in February.

But if our goal is a small fruit tree, aggressive winter pruning works against us. The tree thinks you are asking for crazy spring regrowth, and once this gets started, you’ll probably be stuck in a vicious cycle, chopping off water sprouts for years.

On the other hand, if you come through once or twice during the growing season and prune back some of the actively growing leaf mass – long, whippy, new growth branches, typically – you are limiting the vigor of a tree. The leaf canopy and root development are checked together and stay more in balance. This makes it easier to maintain your tree at a comfortable, small, backyard-appropriate size.

So, for size restriction of fruit trees, I am a big fan of summer pruning. And really, there’s no easier pruning. As your tree grows and develops, if something is too long, or too tall, or sticking out too far, you just cut it off. Don’t worry too much about it, just cut it back. If you really feel you must have guidelines, cut back any whippy new growth by half. Reach up and cut off anything sticking up further than you can reach. You aren’t going to kill your tree.

Well, almost certainly you aren’t going to kill your tree. Typically, people under-prune their fruit trees. But you can go too far with limiting vigor, of course. If you cut off every branch on the tree, you’re harming it, not guiding it. A tree does need a leaf canopy to metabolize sunshine, after all. And if you cut major scaffold limbs off instead of trimming back whippy new leaf growth in summer you’re doing a long-term disservice to your tree and your fruit yield. So think about your goals, and prune with them in mind.

If you approach fruit tree pruning with an understanding of why it’s done, and you work with the natural inclination of your trees, you can achieve a healthy, productive, size-limited tree. As the one with the pruning shears, have a far greater role in the final size of the tree than you might think.

A Note on Outward Facing Buds

The highest bud on any tree, and the highest bud on any given branch of a tree has what is called “apical dominance.” This is a fancy way of saying, “Top Bud Makes The Rules.” When you cut back a branch in summer or winter, you should cut the branch just above a bud that is facing the direction you want that branch to grow. Once you – through pruning – make your chosen bud the “top bud” it wins the apical dominance of that branch and new growth of the branch will grow off in the direction that bud is facing.

If you prune to an inward facing bud, you are telling the branch to grow in, towards the trunk of the tree. This reduces sunlight and airflow and greatly increases the possibility of branches rubbing or crossing. That’s why, with very few exceptions, you should prune to an outward-facing bud.

A Note on Rootstock

If you have spent much time with the Raintree catalog or on the Peaceful Valley Farm website lately, you’ve run across rootstock. The right rootstock for your soil and climatic conditions will make the growing of fruit trees far easier. If you live in a place with wetter soils, a rootstock that can tolerate that is important. If you live in a place with sandy soil and high winds, you want a rootstock that has excellent anchorage.

Many rootstocks are bred to be dwarfing – that is, to produce a tree that is smaller when full-grown. All this means is the the rootstock itself is size limiting. Remember that a tree cannot grow more canopy than its root system can support. Summer pruning helps reduce vigor from the top-down; Dwarfing rootstocks help reduce vigor from the bottom-up.

I select dwarfing or mini-dwarfing rootstocks for my trees whenever possible because this means I don’t have to prune as often to keep a tree at the very-small backyard size I’m going for. However, I do still have to prune. Mature height for many fruit trees on “dwarf” rootstock is still 12 to 14 feet tall, which fails the “no ladder” benchmark I’ve set for my Backyard Orchard Culture trees.

Vector Image Credit
The Dark and Drizzly Cocktail
If You Give A Gardener A Book, She'll Wonder About A Swale

Comments

  1. B.E. Ward says:

    Having well-pruned trees is an important permaculture practice, si? At least fruiting trees that don’t provide a canopy layer (which us urban folk are not likely to have in the first place). It never crossed my mind as being a marketing ploy, but just a part of permaculture wisdom.

    • Depends who you talk to. Some permaculture folks, like Sepp Holzer, do not prune at all. There is an argument to be made that pruning is a lot of intervention and work, and that in a well-designed systems less work is better. However, that doesn’t do a lot for us growing in small space or urban areas, and many urban permaculture people employ every technique they can to squeeze more trees into their landscapes and bump biodiversity. So I would say pruning or backyard orchard culture isn’t specifically a permaculture technique so much as a high density technique, but insofar as it allows for more people to grow more productive trees, I think it’s a good one.

  2. knitbunnie says:

    I’m trying some of the “Dave” method to get more trees in a small area, too. I just planted 3 apple, three cherry, and three plum trees in three-tree, close triangles. Your summer vs winter pruning makes a lot of sense.

  3. How long have you been growing your trees in this dense configuration? It sounds like a great idea for urban backyards – but I’ve also read about negative experiences, e.g. where the most vigorous tree in a group wins out and stunts all of the others. Have you seen any of that?

    • The majority of the trees were planted in as whips just about 3 years ago. That’s why I’m still calling this an “experiment” – I don’t feel I have enough data yet to call it a success or a failure.

      I was very careful to assemble by fruit tree quartets based on rootstock vigor and so far, I have not noticed a huge “crowd out” problem. One of the reasons I went for multi-tree groups over multi-grafted trees in most cases was because I really noticed that vigor difference in a combo pear I put in years and years ago. One grafted variety just swamped the others. I ended up yanking that tree because it was too much work to prune.

  4. With the start of our homestead, pruning is on my list of things to master (soon)! It has always seemed like a huge hurdle to learn. But you make it seem very easy. What a great explanation, thanks for the confidence booster! :)

    • Just do it. It’s a skill you learn by doing. Don’t let the experts intimidate you, pruning is just how you talk to your tree and tell it what you want it to do.

  5. Have you trained any as espalier trees? I’ve always wanted to try it but haven’t had a chance. It seems like a great technique for small spaces.

    • I have four espaliers and I bought them all as pre-formed, three-tier multi-grafts. I have found them EASY to maintain. Super simple and quite productive. I grow two up against a south facing fence in the front yard and two more up against the south wall of my house and they’ve thrived. I haven’t trained out espaliers from whips – the time loss isn’t worth the savings to me. Good pre-done espaliers are available for $40-$60 around here.

    • I have espaliered apples and pears along a fence line. I got ambitious and decided to do 5 levels of cordons – it took me 4 years to grow those out (without any grafting). 3 levels could be done a lot faster.
      Definitely a very space-efficient and potentially also very attractive way of growing fruit.

    • Betsy True says:

      I grow over 20 espaliered trees that I grafted in local classes and on my own. I have them in horizontal cordons. I’m not entirely happy with the production levels and am seeking more expert advice on effective pruning. It’s possible I am trying to make them smaller than their nature (semidwarf). I’m currently trying to understand Lee Reich’s chapter on various techniques, but they depend on specific climatic conditions and the upper midwest is possibly not mild enough for these.

  6. Thanks for this Erica! But I’m a little confused – could you (or someone) clarify for me what an inward-facing bud is versus outward-facing? I tried googling, but they all look like outward (or upward or downward) to me.

    • Sure. The thing to remember is inward and outward are, in this case, relative terms about the location of the bud, not a description of how the bud looks. So it’s not like saying, “innie or outtie belly button” – it’s just describing where on the branch the bud is growing. Typically what they mean is outward growing AWAY FROM THE TRUNK or inward growing TOWARDS THE TRUNK. So the buds themselves look the same, it’s just where they are growing on the branch. Does that clarify?

  7. Thanks, Erica!

    There’s another interesting resource out there … if you look very carefully at the Back To Eden film (www.backtoedenfilm.com), Paul Gautschi has pruned his trees so that they cascade down and you can reach the fruit. A little googleing suggests that there is a bonus section on the DVD about pruning, and there are a couple of YouTube videos also on the topic.

    • I was really interested to see this when I watched the film. I thought maybe it was his way to retrain more mature trees to be easier to harvest and maintain?

  8. This is such a great summary of Backyard Orchard Culture! We put 16 trees about every 6 feet along a cement retaining wall that is topped by a pipe corral fence about 7 years ago. We have replaced some (I’m not willing to spray to prevent peach leaf curl and there’s not enough heat here in Oakland, CA for some varieties) but overall it has been a huge success. We loosely espalier them and that has worked out well. In the beginning I pored over all the pruning guidelines, but now I just whack them back whenever them seem to be getting out of hand. For our family of four we have more than enough fruit for canning and eating all through the summer/fall. The blossoms are beautiful in the spring. This system is brilliant!

  9. Thank you for this! I was just looking at the water sprouts on my lemon tree and the wobbly growth of my peach, and sighing over all the reading I was going to have to do. You make it sound so easy! My fear is not so much killing the tree as turning it into some sort of Quasimodo thing…

  10. I have two, three-year-old apple trees, a two-year-old white peach tree and an eight-year-old sour cherry tree in my Midwest backyard -all dwarf or semi-dwarf. I have only pruned them in the spring, so reading your post is very helpful and makes SO much sense. I’m wondering though, would it be best to just clean out some of the twiggy growth this spring and make sure the lead branches are growing in the right direction versus trying to maintain the height of my trees? Will it be a big deal to downsize the tree as it grows over the summer? Like you, I don’t want my trees to grow so tall that they become hard to manage, but don’t want to mess up the root/canopy business now that I know better. Also, do you ever use a pre-emergent oil spray on your trees or fertilizer? I prefer to keep things as organic as possible, but have been told that the oil spray is a big help in getting bug-free fruit and that fertilizer helps with fruit production. Thanks for your advice!

    • Val Rogers says:

      I have the same question related to a cherry tree. It’s a semi dwarf about 12′ tall now. The central leader branches out at about 10′ Can I just prune the leader below that point to limit overall height & encourage more lateral branching?

  11. This is a timely post! I have three mini-dwarf trees (two apple, one nectarine) in containers, and have no idea what I’m doing. I just pruned the branches that were rubbing against others and figured that was good enough. My trees were also planted as whips two years ago, so I’m hoping all three produce fruit this year. I’d love to plant them into the ground, but I don’t have the yard space. Thanks for the pruning info!

  12. Very good pruning advice, Erica. I had my very old and severely neglected apple and plum trees partially demolished by black bears last fall. They climbed as high as they could, then broke droke lots of branches, just to get at those scabby old fruits. I had to do some pretty hard cutting to try to save them, but so far, the remaining branches are budding, with both leaf and fruit buds starting. Assuming the old trees survive, any fruit will be lots easier to thin and harvest. If not, well, I plan to try planting 3 and 4 tree clusters, Dave Wilson Nursery style.

  13. Yay…the Long-Awaited Pruning Post! This was so excellent, informative, well-written and even funny that it made me go visit your tip jar. After having watched Stephen Hayes on Youtube for hours on end I took the plunge and tried once again to winter prune our one apple tree last weekend. It isn’t quite where you could throw a hat through it but so much more manageable size-wise. (Our ‘semi-dwarf’ Chehalis must’ve been over 20′ tall.) This weekend the Italian Plum got the pruning. And *now* after reading your post I won’t feel the least bit guilty about going after the watershoots this summer. The information you presented is the perfect bridge between my own experience with these two trees and good science. With your help I will hopefully be able to get these trees down to a much saner size even though it is going to mean several years of regular pruning. Thank you SO MUCH Erica!

  14. Erica, really enjoyed your article. I am a Master Gardener and will be giving a talk on Backyard Orchard Culture. May I use some of your points in my presentation?

  15. Hello! We just moved to a new (to us) home and have a very neglected apple tree. I’m not even sure what type of apples it produces. Is it too late in the season to prune? Or shall I wait? Thanks.

  16. What a lucid and helpful explanation! I planted an orchard in bareroot season and have been reluctant to do summer pruning… Until a certified arborist looking in on the very old redwood (well actually young in redwood years) and walnuts in my acre yard in Napa told me on Friday I should be summer pruning my cherries. Thanks for the encouragement!

  17. I have been taught that apricots and cherries should only be summer pruned, never winter pruned. The winter pruning opens them up to diseases if there are any pruning cuts within about 6 weeks of moisture (dew or rain).
    Also, if you want to see pruning videos, you can see how they do them at Dave Wilson. Here is a link to the videos about Backyard Orchard Culture. Always fun to watch before you go out and do it. It gives you the confidence to get going.

  18. The link didn’t show up. Just go to Youtube and type in Dave Wilson Nursery. The list of videos will show up.

Trackbacks

  1. […] of it, but I have one lemon tree that totally defies my pruning objectives.  Now Erica over at Northwest Edible Life has put out a blog post that explains pruning, from the essentials on up.  I didn’t know as […]

  2. […] this week, Erica over at Northwest Edible Life wrote a great post about the difference between summer and winter fruit tree pruning. She always posts articles that are timely and hit the nail on the head, but unfortunately, this […]

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