Top Six Most Common Mistakes Made When Pruning Fruit Trees

Reprinted with permission

By Caleb Torrice

Cornell Cooperative Extension


These are the most common mistakes made while winter pruning in the orchard.


  1. Cutting branches back instead of totally removing them. If you have a large caliper branch in the top of the tree, it needs to be removed. If that large branch is not removed, often it will continue to grow, taking nutrients from smaller, lower branches. If a branch is cut back and not

removed, it can increase in diameter and stiffen the branch.


  1. A little off the top. Remember that we are striving for a Christmas tree shape….a narrow top with a wide bottom. This shape allows for maximum sunlight use. Branches on the top scaffold, if left unchecked, grow vigorously absorbing more sunlight than other lower branches. This leads to shadowing lower branches and over time a mushroom shaped tree or, in severe cases, trees with an upside down Christmas tree shape. To avoid this problem, remember to use whole limb replacement on the top scaffold. Keep those top branches young, healthy and productive.


  1. Allowing droopy branches to remain in the tree. This is more obvious on tip bearers such as Cortland but often commonplace on most varieties. We all know that a tree’s main goal is to grow towards the sun with vertical branches. We also all know that the best fruit is born on horizontal branches.


So what is the story on branches growing down? Remember that the tree’s hormones and nutrients are flowing through the tree. These are the factors that determine bud development, vigor and even fruit size. When a branch heads south, these necessary components are naturally not abundant in these areas. That is why droopy branches usually have small fruit and the wood doesn’t show signs of vigor but is mostly spurs. Remove these droopy branches by cutting back to a horizontal branch. This will allow for larger fruit. I know in tip bearing varieties this is an ongoing battle.  However, if droopy branches are not removed, over years you can see the decline in productivity, tree health and vigor.


  1. Not pruning every year. Let’s be honest with ourselves, pruning every year is the best option for maximum tree health and productivity, but is it always feasible? No. Warren Stiles used to tell us that the trees don’t always read the books. I interpreted this to mean that you can’t always go by the books and often have to use your best judgment.


Helpful hint No. 1: Focus on dwarf trees. This is where our bread is buttered in today’s marketplace. Maximizing output per acre. Try to prune every year and at least every other.


Helpful hint No. 2: Don’t go chainsaw crazy every four years. If you go into a block that hasn’t been pruned recently and go hog wild, you will have an explosion of growth. In my opinion, it’s better to cut less more often. Instead of hacking six large branches in one year, take three one year and three in year two. This will help keep your explosive vigor down and allow you to spend half as much time per tree; hopefully, allowing you to move quicker through the block.


  1. Leaving branches too low in the tree. This is one of the problems associated with pruning with your wallet. I will prune someone else’s orchard better than my own, because I am not counting fruit buds outside of my orchard. Forget about fruit loss and focus on correct pruning principles. You will often make up for less fruit with larger, cleaner fruit. It’s the same principles with these low branches. Remove them now with shears or in August with the mower.


  1. Creating walls in the trees. Part of the reason for pruning is to allow for spray penetration. If you have a branch that is creeping into the row and you decide to cut it back instead of totally removing it, don’t cut it back to a branch going straight up. I know this sounds like common sense, but I see this on a daily basis. In the winter that branch doesn’t look like a large threat for spray penetration, however, after a spring of growth and hundreds of leaves, you have a very dense wall to spray through. Instead, cut to a horizontal branch going left or right. If it has a slight upward direction, don’t worry too much. Hopefully your huge apples will bring the branch down to horizontal.


One of the rules in life: For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert. This is very true in pruning. The more people in an orchard, the more theories on how to prune. Remember that there is no correct way to prune, but there are wrong ways. Use the principles you know, and use your best judgement in the case at hand.


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