If you are growing restricted forms of top fruit trees – cordons, espaliers, fans, pyramids, stepovers or even bushes – you need to undertake your pruning in the summer to help ensure maximum fruitfulness and vigour as well as for keeping your trees in good shape. Additionally, the removal and shortening of shoots and thereby leaves will allow more light to get the fruit which is essential for late ripening varieties.
Before I detail what you do I need to make it clear to you that the pruning of these fruit trees is very simple indeed so don’t be put off by those who write huge articles or whole books which lead to confusion rather than education! When I give talks on top fruit growing I make it clear that pruning, generally, is one of the easiest parts of fruit growing once you know what to do. So this blog is going to be a short and simple guide on exactly how to summer prune.
I will start with apples and pears as these are the easiest of all and the pruning time for these is when the bottom third of new shoots become hard and woody. In the southern UK this will be about the second week of July for apples and the third week onwards for pears. In more northerly areas you can add on between ten days and two weeks. In the case of cordon apples or pears shorten to a bud no more than one inch (2.5cm) from last year’s growth or if new growth has grown from the trunk shorten to a bud at approximately six inches (15cm). If your cordon has grown to the height that you want it to cut back all growth to one bud but if you want your cordon to grow in length prune back new growth to one third to a bud. That’s the very simple one inch and six inch rule and, yes, it’s as simple as that! In the case of espaliers you have two things to consider. With established trees that require no more layers simply apply the one inch rule to new growth and prune the leader to one bud. If you are looking for further layers you need to prune the leader off to a pair of buds at approximately 90cm from the previous layer. These buds will quickly grow outwards and you can train them along wires. Treat stepover trees as single layer espaliers.
For the first three or four years after planting bush trees you will need to prune for shape as well as fruitfulness. Each variety of apple and pear has its own growth pattern but generally prune back new growth by two thirds to a bud in these early years until you are happy with the shape. In future years you will simply need to thin out growth to a bud or tip branches. In the case of less vigorous or more vigorous growing trees you can use your own judgment on the amount to prune. You can decide the eventual height of your tree by pruning the leader in the same way that I outlined for cordons. And it’s as simple as that for apples and pears!
Incidentally, always remove any damaged, dead or dying branches at any time of the year to prevent ingress of disease.
Plum cordons are pruned in a similar way to apples and pears although mid to late June is the ideal time. Plums will take a little more time as there is far more wood to deal with and it is important to thin out what may be considerable growth before the structural pruning. Follow the one inch and six inch rule again for cordons. Pruning plum fans is fairly similar to that of peaches and nectarines except that, as with cordon plums, there is plenty of wood to deal with and to avoid overcrowding you will need to identify which shoots are going to be used as replacements and remove the rest.
Plums grown as bush trees will require similar treatment as apple and pear bushes although I advise pruning back three quarters of new growth as these trees tend to be far more vigorous. You will also need to judiciously remove side shoots growing from the main branches as plenty will be formed. A general rule of thumb that I follow is ensure that these side shoots are cut to about 7.5cm (3in) from the branch and that the same amount again is used as a measure for spacing between shoots. This rule may be a little tedious but it does prevent overcrowding. As with apple trees you can decide the final height of your trees by careful pruning of the leader.
Although apricot and cherry trees are treated in a similar way to plum trees I have kept them separate as there is more likely to be dieback to contend with before pruning commences. This is largely the reason that growing apricots and cherries as cordons is more difficult and tiresome! So before you start pruning cut back all wood that is dead and this can sometimes be quite severe in apricots. It is when you have removed this dead wood that you can make judgments about pruning. Otherwise follow the same rules that I have outlined for pruning plums except prune these trees after fruiting and no later than the end of August.
So now let’s have a look at peach and nectarine fans which require slightly different pruning methods. The first thing to know is that peaches and nectarines fruit on the previous season’s growth. Pruning should have begun in early spring when the sap had started flowing. Leave all of the fattish buds – these are this year’s fruit buds – and identify new shoots which don’t bear these yet as they will provide next year’s fruit. Leave one new shoot that has started growing near the base of each existing branch which will be next year’s replacement and another halfway up the branch which will act as an emergency should the lower one fail. All other emerging shoots should have been removed.
As the new shoots grow tie them in and in early June pinch back any growth breaking off this shoot to one leaf. Pinch the new shoots back to six leaves at the same time. As these shoots continue to grow tie them into your supporting framework. After harvesting in July or August prune out any old wood that you left last year plus the wood that has supported this year’s crop as they have no further value. Tie in the new shoots to take their place. If you have too many new shoots growing do not be afraid to cut them out.
The most important thing to recognise about all of the stone fruits that I have dealt with above is that you have a limited season for pruning. You must only prune when the sap is flowing (to help prevent diseases such as bacterial canker or silver leaf entering the sap system) and I limit that to April to mid-September. If you have to prune outside that time because of branch damage prune the wood back to clean unbroken wood as soon as you can and then smear the wound with a wound paint such as Arbrex Seal & Heal.
8th July 2014
Gerry is an experienced amateur fruit grower who is Chairman of the RHS Fruit Group, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Fruit, Vegetable and Herb Committee and also their Fruit Trials Panel. Gerry judges fruit nationally for the Royal Horticultural Society and is also a qualified National Vegetable Society judge.