There’s an awful lot to do in the garden during springtime. Too much it seems, sometimes. So in thinking about a better way to manage gardening time, I wondered – could you prune fruit trees in the summer or fall instead?
The best time to prune fruit trees is generally in the spring while trees are dormant. Summer pruning may be fine, encouraged, or even necessary in some circumstances. Fall pruning isn’t recommended and should be avoided. Here is what you need to know about the timing of pruning fruit trees.
So while I did learn that summer pruning isn’t as bad as I originally thought it was, fall pruning is a no-go. Keep reading to find out what I learned – and why fall pruning shouldn’t happen!
Can I Prune My Fruit Trees in Summer?
Yes, there are some instances and times when you should (or absolutely have to) prune your fruit trees during the summer.
Before I started researching this possibility in more depth, my hypothesis was that summer pruning was a no-way-at-any-time. Turns out, I was wrong. There are some times when it’s totally fine to prune fruit trees during the summer!
For example, take a look at these pictures. Do you see how these trees have been pruned and shaped to grow alongside their various supports? This style of pruning is called espalier – and it requires summer pruning and fastening branches to a support structure.
Espalier pruning trains fruit trees (or other fruit-bearing plants, like grapevines) to grow in a specific, picturesque, or just fancy shape along a wall, trellis, or other structure. Usually, the supporting structure is permanent, like the walls in the above photos.
It’s a fantastic way to grow a lot of fruit in small areas or tight spaces – or up against a wall. It’s perfect for small, tight gardens – or for making the garden look like an old-style garden.
But what about if you aren’t intentionally doing espalier-style pruning? Can you use summer pruning? The answer is still yes – depending on what your end goals of pruning are.
But for that, we’ll need to look at the purposes of pruning – so that we can see exactly when pruning will be necessary to meet your garden’s goals. But first – let’s answer the other half of the burning question at hand… can we prune trees during the fall?
Can I Prune My Fruit Trees in the Fall?
Could you? Yes. Should you? No. Pruning fruit trees during the fall is not recommended. Don’t do it. Same with winter pruning. Skip it. Wait until spring to prune that tree!
All of my research shows it’s a bad idea – and the more I think about it, the more I realize that my own anecdotal evidence supports this. But anecdotal evidence isn’t research – so let’s get back to what the research shows first. Then we can talk about stories.
All of my research indicates that fall pruning isn’t a good idea for one important reason: pruning during fall removes resources and reserves that the tree needs to prevent winter temperature injuries. Trees pruned in fall have a much higher risk of winter injuries – or even dying during the winter due to temperature injury.
I suspected that going into this, although I began to wonder if there were a few exceptions (especially after I saw that there were times that summer pruning turned out to be useful). So, let’s think about it together – it’s storytime.
Now, depending on where you live, winter temperature injuries may seem to be less of an issue. For example, I grew up in Arizona – where winters are far milder than they are here in Utah. So as I was doing my research, I kept thinking about how maybe in Arizona fall pruning could be a thing.
So, I paused my research to try and remember when the citrus orchards are pruned. The more I reminisced, the more I remembered and realized that even Arizona winters aren’t easy for citrus trees. Citrus trees require protection from the winters – even in Arizona. So pruning them in the fall would still risk winter and temperature-based injury.
Based on my research and experience, then, pruning fruit trees during the fall is not recommended. Could you do it? Sure. But you’re risking your fruit tree’s reserves and ability to survive the winter without damage. Just wait until the spring – then you can prune it.
So next let’s talk about how you should prune your fruit trees. That way, we can then talk about when you should prune your trees – based on what your garden goals are.
How and Why to Prune Fruit Trees
Next, let’s talk about the proper way and rationale to prune trees. That way, we aren’t just pruning them at the right time – but also doing it properly. Because if we’re going to do something, let’s do it right, right?
In any case, these pruning guidelines come primarily from the University of Utah Extension – and then I’ve added in a few of my own tips, tricks, and warnings. But first, let’s talk about some pros and cons of pruning.
|Pruning Pros||Pruning Cons|
|Pruned trees are generally smaller and easier to manage.||It’s a lot of work to prune trees.|
|Pruned trees have better airflow and light distribution.||Pruning too much can lead to sunburned fruit.|
|Increased fruit quality.||Decreased fruit quantity.|
|The fruit tree is better balanced and less likely to experience damage from weight loads.||You have to know where and when to prune the tree.|
|Early training and pruning can prevent extensive and corrective heavy pruning later.||Pruning will still be required every year.|
|Pruning balances vegetative and fruiting growth.||You have to watch the tree or plant’s reaction to pruning and respond accordingly.|
|Pruning increases growth near the cuts.||Pruned trees have delayed fruiting compared to non-pruned trees.|
|Regularly pruned trees help guarantee larger annual yields from a healthier tree.||Non-pruned trees reach maturity faster but may have smaller overall yields.|
|You can affect fruit by pruning wisely.||You could end up with a smaller harvest if you prune the wrong parts of the plant.|
Generally, the pros of pruning far outweigh the cons. However, it does take some dedicated effort, time, planning, and evaluation to make sure that you’re on the right path. And you also have to know what you’re doing.
Oh, and a quick note about the fruit production aspect of pruning. You’ll need to know where to prune – and it’s going to be different for each variety of fruit trees or plants. For example, a peach tree will grow fruit on last year’s branches. Cherry trees, on the other hand, fruit on spurs (short, stubby branches) that are several years old. If you prune off the wrong branches, then, you’re going to affect your fruit harvest.
Now that you know more about the background of pruning, let’s go through the pruning recommendations I’ve learned from experience and research.
|Pruning Fruit Trees Recommendations||Rationale and/or Notes|
|Prune newly-planted fruit trees so that roots and tops are balanced.||This will help your fruit tree start right – and prevent early issues related to imbalance.|
|Prune young trees lightly while training them towards the desired shape and growth.||Doing the legwork up front will prevent a lot of issues later on – and will help the tree grow into the desired shape.|
|Prune young trees to delay full fruiting potential and promote growth.||This should be done until the tree is about 5 years old so that it has sufficient reserve to produce regular, large fruit yields.|
|Prune fruit trees in early spring prior to active growth.||This way you don’t risk temperature injury due to fall or early winter pruning practices.|
|Summer pruning is more useful for dwarfing a tree than spring pruning.||If your tree needs to be dwarfed, prune it in the summer – or try some espalier training.|
|Prune mature trees heavily as needed.||This is particularly true if there hasn’t been much growth lately. Prune it and stimulate new growth.|
|Prune the top of the tree more than the bottom of the tree.||You want to prune it so it’s easier to reach without a ladder. Leave those bottom branches!|
|Watch the nitrogen supplied to the tree.||Excessive nitrogen will make your tree leaf and grow like crazy. And then you’ll have to prune it more. So take it easy on the nitrogen there, friend.|
|Pruning stimulates shoots to grow while reducing overall size.||So if you want more shoots, prune it more. Know where your tree grows fruits so you don’t affect fruit production outside of your desired bounds.|
|Be careful pruning large limbs.||You don’t want to imbalance the tree. Plus, they’re heavy. So be careful that everyone is clear. Don’t leave a stub behind.|
|Trees don’t generally need band-aids.||Wound dressings or sealants aren’t generally needed after you prune off branches less than 2 inches in diameter.|
As far as the specific steps involved in pruning your fruit trees (like cut here instead of here, cut this branch first), remember that it’s going to really depend on the fruit tree variety. I prune my peach tree much differently than I do my cherry tree. Part of that is how they grow differently – and part is due to where they fruit. You’ll want to look up specific steps determined by the fruit variety.
Next, let’s talk about when we should prune. We know that spring and summer are great times to prune (and that fall and winter are discouraged), but which one is right for your fruit tree? Let’s find out.
When Should I Prune My Fruit Trees?
Ready to see when you should prune your fruit trees? Let’s compare the information – so that you’ll know exactly when to get out your pruning shears.
Please keep in mind that these are generalities I’ve found in my research – and that you should always weigh what’s in your garden or orchard’s best interests before making any cuts to the plant.
|Situation||When to Prune|
|Your tree interior and fruit are too shaded. The red fruit color isn’t developing properly.||Summer pruning will reduce shade and improve red fruit color development.|
|Your trees grow too much – and you’re getting tired of the extensive spring pruning marathons.||Summer pruning will dwarf the tree more than spring pruning does.|
|The fruit trees aren’t having sufficient trunk enlargement or root growth.||Use spring pruning and skip summer pruning.|
|The tree is too small or it hasn’t recovered from the last pruning session.||Use dormant-based pruning in springtime to maximize growth potential and skip dwarfing it for a year.|
|The tree’s fruit is so large that it splits and cracks before it’s ripe.||Switch to summer pruning next year – it will reduce fruit size and sugar levels.|
|The tree foliage isn’t as intensely green as normal with summer pruning (before growth cessation).||This can be normal. If it’s affecting the tree, you may want to switch to spring pruning.|
|Fruit ripens too late in the season with summer pruning.||Switch to spring pruning to minimize delays in fruit formation and ripening.|
|New shoots don’t seem to grow at cuts after summer pruning.||They should grow next spring. If it’s concerning, then you may want to switch to spring pruning.|
|Summer pruning isn’t enough to control growth and dwarf the tree.||Consider using a combination of dormant (spring) and summer pruning.|
|There’s summer drought.||Summer pruning will reduce root growth – so if you can tell the future (or expect a drought), use dormant pruning. Or, at the very least, consider minimizing or skipping summer pruning in a drought.|
|You need the fruit tree to mature faster.||Pruning won’t help you any time of year. You’ll need to use another method (ringing, seeding down to grass, root pruning) to stimulate the accumulation of carbohydrates and early fruit-bud formation.|
|You need to maximize garden space and/or fruit production.||Use training and pruning systems based on old European gardens (like espalier, summer pruning, spending, taille trigeme, palmettes, cordons, etc) to maximize family-sized fruit production while keeping the overall tree size to a minimum.|
|You’d like to be able to pick fruit without a ladder.||Use dwarfing pruning (or espalier or other pruning techniques) to keep the fruit at a more reasonable, ladder-not-required height.|
|You’d rather not prune at all if you don’t have to.||You don’t have to prune a fruit tree. You can let it grow freeform. This is, according to my research, growing in popularity since the middle of the last century.|
Based on all of my research and experience, I’m excited to be able to add summer pruning to my gardening toolkit. Especially for my peach tree! That tree just keeps growing – and we have to cut it back so much every spring.
Intentional summer pruning may be our new key to easier, more sustainable, and more intentional gardening with our fruit trees. And then I won’t have to get out the ladder to pick peaches – and that thought makes me happy.
I mean, look at it! We planted our peach tree (the big, bushy tree by the compost frame) at the same time as the other fruit trees. It’s more than double the size of any of our pear, cherry, and/or apple trees. And this picture is from last summer!
So this summer, I’m excited to use my newfound, research-backed knowledge to make our peach tree manageable again. Because I really don’t like getting on a ladder if I don’t have to. But hey – if you do? That’s awesome.
That’s one thing I love about gardening – how individualized it can be. And now that we each know more about pruning our trees, we can each prune them to fit our own vision of what our gardens should look like. Happy gardening!
Want to build a raised-bed garden? Make sure you read this article I wrote on Does it Matter What You Make Grow Boxes or Raised Beds From?
What happens if you prune apple trees in the summer? Pruning apple trees in summer may be done intentionally to shape the tree or increase sunlight to impact fruit color.
Can you prune fruit trees in bloom? Pruning a fruit tree in bloom can be done and may be necessary for some circumstances. Pruning off fruit blooms will impact overall fruit quantity and quality, depending on how it’s done.
When, how, and why should I move my raspberry canes? The best time to move a raspberry cane is while it’s dormant – usually early spring or late fall. For more details and specifics, read my complete guide to transplanting raspberries here.
Learning from your own experience is essential, but learning from others is also intelligent. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as homesteaders.
- Chandler, William Henry. “Results of Some Experiments in Pruning Fruit Trees.” Google Books, Google, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=50MiAQAAMAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA5&dq=prune+fruit+trees&ots=e9Xgk4Z1vN&sig=DwWW6Kmztb0_MmTom9qMGOOiO0o#v=onepage&q=prune fruit trees&f=false.
- Ferree, D.a.v.i.d. .C., Myers, S. .C. and Schupp, J.a.m.e.s. .R. (1992). ROOT PRUNING AND ROOT RESTRICTION OF FRUIT TREES-CURRENT REVIEW. Acta Hortic. 322, 153-166 DOI: 10.17660/ActaHortic.1992.322.17 https://doi.org/10.17660/ActaHortic.1992.322.17
- Gunnell, JayDee. “Ask a Specialist: Pruning Pointers.” USU, 30 Jan. 2020, extension.usu.edu/news_sections/gardening/pruning_pointers.
- Lakso, A.N. and Corelli Grappadelli, L. (1992). IMPLICATIONS OF PRUNING AND TRAINING PRACTICES TO CARBON PARTITIONING AND FRUIT DEVELOPMENT IN APPLE. Acta Hortic. 322, 231-240 DOI: 10.17660/ActaHortic.1992.322.25 https://doi.org/10.17660/ActaHortic.1992.322.25
- Marini, et al. “Physiology of Pruning Fruit Trees.” VTechWorks Home, Virginia Cooperative Extension, 18 June 2014, vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/55299.
- Mika, A. (1992). TRENDS IN FRUIT TREE TRAINING AND PRUNING SYSTEMS IN EUROPE. Acta Hortic. 322, 29-36 DOI: 10.17660/ActaHortic.1992.322.3 https://doi.org/10.17660/ActaHortic.1992.322.3
- Utah State University. “004 – Pruning Landscape Trees: An Overview.” USU, forestry.usu.edu/news/utah-forest-facts/pruning-landscape-trees-an-overview.
- Walser, Ronald H., et al. “Pruning the Orchard.” Utah State University Extension, Utah State University, digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1724&context=extension_histall.