pruning shears cutting a tree branch | pruning fruit trees in winter

Growing fruit trees has been a lifelong passion. I’ve been growing and pruning fruit trees for most of my life. I planted my first apple tree with my father when I was seven years old.  When I was fourteen years old, my first summer job was working at a local orchard with old Mr. Johnson. I first learned about traditional pruning methods from him. Since that summer job in the orchard, I’ve had a passion for growing fruit trees that has lasted a lifetime.  

When we settled down on our homestead in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, we planted apple, pear, peach, cherry, and plum trees. We also grow a few hazelnuts, pecans, heartnuts, hybrid chestnuts, and black walnuts.

The Benefits of Pruning Fruit Trees

Taking care of homestead fruit trees is not that difficult, but your trees do require some attention. Along with making sure that your trees have adequate water and organic nutrients, regular pruning contributes to tree health.

Over the years, I’ve learned that careful pruning produces larger, sweeter fruit. Pruning also allows more sunlight to penetrate the tree and helps the fruit to ripen. Pruning assists the natural immune system of a tree to resist diseases. Pruning encourages apple buds and leads to more apples per tree. Pruning creates stronger branches. And pruning can make picking fruit easier, by opening up the branch structure.

Winter Pruning

The old saying goes that you can prune a tree whenever your pruners are sharp. That means you can prune a fruit tree at any time of the year, but the winter season is a good time to prune fruit trees for several reasons. Homesteaders are usually less busy in the winter. In the winter it’s easier to see the branches that need pruning. In January and February trees are completely dormant and respond well to pruning. Pruning in cold weather minimizes the risk of spreading diseases from pruning cuts. In addition, winter pruning allows a tree to slowly heal before growth begins in the spring.

Child holding a basket of freshly picked apples

The Basics of Pruning Fruit Trees in Winter

People have been pruning fruit trees for hundreds of years, and some of the pruning methods that have been developed can get complicated. Although there are lots of different opinions on how to prune fruit trees, homesteaders only need a few basic techniques. Here are some pruning basics that almost everyone follows.  

  1. Cut out broken branches.  Broken branches can allow diseases to infect the tree. If the branch is large, treat the wound with a tree wound sealer. If the branches are two inches in diameter or smaller, just let the tree naturally heal over the cut.
  2. Remove rubbing branches. Rubbing branches wear away the bark and allow diseases to enter the tree. 
  3. Remove inward-growing branches. Branches that grow inward, toward the center of the tree, will eventually interfere with other branches. Inward-growing branches can shade the growing fruit and delay ripening. Removing inward-growing branches lets the tree dry out more quickly after rain. This helps to prevent molds, harmful bacteria, and viruses from growing on leaves and fruit.
  4. Prune branches that are horizontal or growing down toward the ground. Branches that are horizontal to the trunk are prone to break from the weight of the fruit. Encourage branches that are growing at an upward angle between 45- and 60- degrees from the trunk.  
  5. Prune out branches that are growing vertically, or straight up. These are usually one-year-old branches and are often called “suckers, or “water sprouts.”

Pruning Younger and Older Trees

It’s better to plant young fruit trees in the winter or early spring before the tree begins to leaf out. When you plant a young fruit tree, leave only three or four strong branches that are spaced around the trunk– cut off all the other branches. The remaining branches should be separated from each other up and down the trunk by a few inches. Prune each branch so only 4 or 5 buds remain. This will allow the immature root system to adequately provide enough water and nutrients to the leaves.

For the next two years after planting, leave the tree alone to get established and to start growing strong branches. In the third year after planting, you can begin basic pruning. 

In addition to basic pruning, older trees that have begun to bear fruit can be pruned to promote fruit buds. The standard way to do this is to prune back a two-year-old branch to four or five fruit buds. This will stimulate more fruit buds to appear and create more fruit.  It won’t take you long to recognize the difference between fruit buds and leaf buds. You can find examples of fruit buds online.

Winter Pruning is a Homestead Skill

Fruit tree pruning is an ancient art, and complex systems of pruning have been developed over the years.   Fortunately, homesteaders only need to follow the basics of pruning to have a simple and satisfying way to provide wholesome fruit for the family.

After you finish pruning on a cold winter day, I recommend that you reward yourself by sitting in front of the fire with a warm piece of pie made with fruit from your very own tree.

About the Author

Joseph Martinez is the Owner/Brewer of Rockbridge Cider Vinegar. He handcrafts traditional apple cider vinegar from ‘Certified Naturally Grown’ apples on his homestead in Rockbridge County, Virginia.

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Pruning fruit trees in winter | Get your trees ready for the next growing season