Prune fruit trees in late winter

Click the image to view this KSRE Publication

The thought of growing a fruit tree is always exciting and in Kansas there are many types of fruit trees that can be grown very successfully.  What isn’t always exciting is to think about the work necessary to keep fruit trees healthy and strong.  Fruit trees do require more work and regular care than shade or ornamental trees and pruning is just one key element of proper care.

The truth is that pruning will ensure a much longer and more productive life for most fruit trees.  Neglected fruit trees generally have very upright or narrow branch angles, which result in serious limb breakage under a heavy fruit load. This significantly reduces the productivity of the tree and may greatly reduce tree life.

There are several reasons for proper fruit tree pruning including:  a strong tree structure, increased light intensity in the tree canopy to aid in fruit development, removal of dead, damaged, or unproductive wood, and control of tree size.

Pruning requirements vary for individual types of fruit trees but in general apple and peach trees require the most attention on a consistent basis.  Trees that are pruned and trained within the first few years of life are by far the easiest to work with and will provide the best long term results.  Once a young tree is trained properly it should be left until fruiting begins since too much pruning may actually delay fruiting.

Most older trees that are already bearing fruit simply need annual maintenance pruning once properly trained.  This includes simply removing dead or diseased wood, crossing branches, upright water sprouts, and maintaining tree height.

The best time to prune most fruit trees is while they are dormant in late winter.  This could be anytime from mid to late February into early to mid March.  


Most growers train apple trees with a central leader (once main upright trunk) and several scaffold (fruit bearing) branches.  The scaffold branches should be evenly spaced around the tree and not directly across from each other.  Scaffold branches should also have wide angles at their attachment with the tree trunk to ensure strength for bearing a large fruit load.  When young, the scaffold branches can even be spread with clothespins or toothpicks to create a wide angle as the tree grows. 


Peach trees differ from apples in that they are trained with an ‘open center’.  This means they will not have a central leader, but instead 3 to 5 scaffold branches coming out from wide angles at the trunk.  Peach trees require more pruning that any other fruit tree since they produce fruit only on the new wood grown the previous season.  This means plenty of new wood must be grown each year for next year’s crop.  If peach tree pruning is neglected, the tree will produce fruit farther and farther out from the main trunk each year, and the risk of tree breakage gets very high. For a simple video guide to pruning see this post.