'Tis the time of year to begin thinking about pruning your fruit trees. Why wintertime, some may ask. Winter is commonly known as the dormant time for most trees. Timing of dormant pruning is critical. Pruning should begin as late in the winter as possible to avoid winter injury.

Apple trees should be pruned first, followed by cherry, peach, and plum trees. A good rule to follow is to prune the latest blooming trees first and the earliest blooming last. Another factor to consider is tree age. Within a particular fruit type, the oldest trees should be pruned first. Younger trees are more prone to winter injury from early pruning.

Some people prefer to prune fruit trees and shrubs in early spring while the trees are still dormant, before growth activity begins. This still allow pruning wounds to heal and you can easily see the buds to work around.

Just be mindful that in the spring trees can respond to pruning by producing many new vigorous, upright shoots, called water sprouts, which shade the tree and inhibit proper development. Heavy dormant pruning can promote excessive vegetative vigor, which uses much of the tree's energy, leaving little for fruit growth and development.

Proper pruning of your fruit trees allows you to enjoy good tree health, provide disease management, and encourage better fruit yield. By pruning your fruit trees, you stimulate shoot growth, control the size and shape of the tree, and improve the quality of the fruit.

If you have not pruned before, don't worry. It is not difficult, and you'll get a real feel for how to prune fruit trees the more you work at it. And it's worth every minute.

You'll want to follow a few specific fruit tree pruning instructions for different types of fruit trees. For instance, apple trees need a different pruning system than peach trees. Here are the basics:

The Central-Leader System

This is used for pruning apple trees, pear trees, and sweet cherry trees. A "central leader" is the main stem or trunk of the tree from which other lateral branches develop. Branching generally begins on the leader 24 to 36 inches above the soil surface to allow movement under the tree. Ideally, three to four branches, collectively called a scaffold whorl, surround the tree all pointing in different directions. The selected scaffolds should be uniformly spaced around the trunk, not directly across from or above one another. Above the first scaffold whorl, leave an area of approximately 18 to 24 inches without any branches to allow light into the center of the tree.

The leader should be headed at approximately 24 to 30 inches above the highest whorl of scaffolds to promote continued branching and scaffold whorl development. Dormant pruning should also eliminate dead, diseased, and damaged wood. Unwanted growth, such as upright growing shoots and laterals with sharp branch angles not removed during summer pruning, should also be removed at this time.

Mature trees that have been properly maintained will require minimal pruning. The first step would be to remove dead, diseased, and damaged wood and then upright shoots and shoots below horizontal. To prevent shading, it is important to maintain the Christmas-tree shape by heading and thinning out lateral branches.

Some apple and pear trees can utilize the modified-leader pruning system that is mostly used for nut bearing trees. This is where the central leader and three or four lateral branches are given equal importance.

The Open-Center System

Used for peach tree pruning, as well as pruning plum trees, nectarine trees, apricot trees and sour cherry trees where there is no dominant, vertical trunk (central leader).

Open center fruit tree pruning instructions are based around three or four main limbs set at wide angles with about five lesser branches on each. These trees should remind you of a 'catchers' mitt view. With this in mind, here are some basic fruit tree pruning tips that will get you off to a good start to getting the right balance of shoot growth and fruit production:

1. Always use sharp shears or saws so your cuts are clean. Use pruning shears on young trees and limbs less than 1/2 inch diameter, and lopping shears for your bigger cuts. For mature fruit trees, use a pruning saw.

2. Begin by removing dead wood and broken branches. Then cut out any wood that crosses or rubs against any other branches. This opens up the middle so the sun can get to all the fruit.

3. Make your cut close to a bud, to a joint in the branch, or to the trunk; never leave a stub. The pruning cut should be just above a bud. Make the cut at a backwards angle of about 30 degrees.

4. Prune stems just above a pair of opposing strong shoots or buds. If shoots or buds are staggered, choose a strong one and prune just above it.

5. Keep more horizontal branches, and prune more vertical branches.

6. Remove suckers (shoots) from around the base of the tree.

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