Winter Pruning of Fruit Trees

With the exception of Prunus species such as cherry, which are susceptible to silver leaf disease, free standing fruit trees are best pruned during the dormant season. You can do it anytime from late October through to early March, but I prefer to wait until the tree is fully settled into dormancy, and then get it done well before the buds begin to swell. Anytime during December and January is fine. Ideally, pick a day that isn’t too frosty or wet. Make sure your secateurs, loppers and saws are sharp and clean. I like to sterilise mine with diluted Jeyes fluid before and after, to avoid spreading any disease from one plant to another.

I’ve just pruned my quince tree (Cydonia oblonga ‘Vranja’). Quince fruits are about the size of, and a similar shape to pears. They have a downy coating, and a wonderful fragrance. They can be added to apple pies or crumbles to give them more flavour, or made into membrillo – quince paste – that is eaten with cheese. Apparently. But I know what you’re thinking – ‘who does he think he is; Mary Berry?’ Back to the pruning then, and the first question to ask is ‘why prune?’

The patient before surgery…


…not massively congested, but could benefit from some shaping

Quince makes quite a small tree – one of the reasons I chose it for my small garden – and although this specimen has grown fast during it’s four years in the garden, I’m happy for it to put on more height. I didn’t want to restrict it’s growth (more on that later) so I was pruning to improve the tree’s shape and to promote it’s health. Trees put out shoots in all directions, which can lead to them becoming quite congested. There were a number of shoots that were crossing each other. This is bad, because when branches rub together, they wound each other, and wounds can be entry points for disease. So those shoots had to go – I cut them back to their source.

There were other shoots growing in towards the centre of the tree. What you should be aiming for is an open shape. This lets light into the centre of the tree, which helps the fruit ripen, and allows for a good airflow through the canopy, which helps to prevent diseases. This was particularly relevant to me, as my quince suffered a bad bout of Quince leaf blight last year (Pulling Weeds Post 8/9/2017). So I cut most of the shoots that were growing inwards back to their source, opening up the canopy, and ensuring that all branches had some space around them.

Incidentally, when pruning fruit trees, you need to have an eye on the future. It isn’t quite so important for quince, which don’t tend to produce a huge harvest, but pears, and apples in particular, can be laden down with fruit, and it’s easy to underestimate just how much it will weigh down the branches. So when pruning in winter you need to think about the effect of the fruit, and whether branches will be bent down so far that they rest on the branch below, and prune to try and avoid this happening.

The next thing to consider is what’s generally known as ‘the three D’s’ – identify and cut out any wood that has signs of disease (such as canker), or is dead, or dying.

Finally, I pruned some of the rather spindly top shoots. How much you take off depends how much you want them to grow – perversely, the more you cut off, the more growth you stimulate. I really just tipped them to take off the thin, straggly ends – they should produce new, thicker shoots from the next remaining bud. Getting up to reach the top shoots can be difficult. My ladders weren’t tall enough to get me there, but I’ve found that you can grab the branch lower down and bend it down (gently – don’t risk snapping it!) until you can reach the tip.
The finished result – not a huge difference, but as I’ve said, it didn’t need that much pruning, and my general rule is that any tree that obviously looks as if it’s just been pruned is a tree that’s been pruned clumsily

My quince didn’t need a great deal of pruning, but for older trees, and particularly ones that haven’t been pruned for some years, it can be a different story. You may have to cut back large branches that are growing into the centre of the tree. If you need to reduce the size of the tree, I think it’s best to do it by cutting out some of the higher, leading branches back to their source, to maintain a natural shape, rather than lopping all of the branches to the height you want, leaving ugly stumps, which isn’t a good look. You should be aiming to shape a tree, not round it over. Bear in mind too, that if you cut fruit trees back too hard, they can respond by throwing out lots of long, straight shoots (known as water shoots) which won’t bear fruit, and which really spoil the shape of the tree. If a tree needs serious renovation to check it’s growth, then it’s best to do this gradually, over a number of seasons.
The prunings – as you can see, I didn’t need to remove a large quantity of material

One more thing to bear in mind – be careful up those ladders.

There was a young chap called Vince,
Who attempted to prune a quince.
But he dropped his saw, then fell off the ladder,
When he picked himself up you could see that he had a
Wound that would make anyone wince.

…Happy pruning!

Words and pictures copyright Graham Wright 2018

3 thoughts on “Winter Pruning of Fruit Trees

  1. absolutely agree with you about the clumsy pruning! the tree should look better, not ‘pruned’. That said, I am still a long way away from pruning masterhood.

  2. Any ideas how to establish a shrub bed in an area full of wild rabbits ( I don’t want to harm the animals but
    they eat almost everything )

    • Hi Agnes,
      Rabbits will eat almost whatever they fancy, so the best option, if it’s feasible, is to use fencing to keep them out; if not around your whole garden, then at least around the area you want to plant up, until it’s established. How big is the bed? Any fencing needs to continue underground by at least 30cm ( 1 foot), or ideally 45cm (18 inches), else they can burrow under the fence to get in. You might be able to put a circle of chicken wire (supported with canes) around each of the new plants until they’ve grown a bit (although I understand rabbits will sometimes chew the bark of established plants). If you can’t protect the plants, then there are lists of those that are (supposedly) resistant to rabbits on the internet, but I don’t think there are any guarantees. If your soil is suitable, my guess is that rhododendrons are unlikely to be attacked, and anything spiky, like firethorn (pyracantha), berberis, mahonia, or some of the more thorny varieties of shrub roses, should be a safe bet. How about planting, between the shrubs, perennials that are poisonous; like Aconitum and euphorbia, or unpalatable to bunnies; such as hardy geraniums (as opposed to pelargoniums) which may discourage them from visiting? But I’m coming at it from a northern hemisphere, temperate climate angle – Whereabouts are you in the world? If you can encourage predators, that might help. Most of the gardens I’ve worked in have been visited by foxes; if you have them in your area you could try putting out food (maybe dog or cat food?) Foxes (and cats) bring their own problems, but nothing so devastating as rabbits. I hope there are some useful ideas in there for you. Good luck!

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