Winter pruning fruit trees

Beppe pruning plum trees in winter
Beppe pruning plum trees in winter

Have you started your winter pruning? If the leaves have fallen off your apple, pear, plum, peach or nectarine trees, now’s the time to get started. 

We talk a lot about pruning (it’s one of the main things that worries home growers), so we thought we’d share some basic pruning terminology.

Here’s how we label various parts of the tree:

A two year old plum tree that's had it's winter pruning
A two year old plum tree – still in the establishment pruning phase – that’s had it’s winter pruning

Limbs/branches, sometimes called ‘scaffold’ branches: these are the permanent, structural parts of your fruit tree. We usually recommend pruning your trees into a ‘vase’ shape, with between 6 and 10 limbs, starting from a central point about knee height above the ground.

The photo above is a young plum tree that only has 4 limbs, but has been pruned back hard to encourage more limbs down low in the tree (‘establishment’ pruning). We explain this technique, and the principles behind how a fruit tree likes to grow, in much more detail in Pruning Young Fruit Trees.

Of course your tree may have a different shape, e.g., espalier, central leader, or more of a wild and possibly completely unpruned shape (those last ones are pretty common!).

Laterals: these are shorter pieces of wood, also called small branches, side branches, shoots or twigs, that grow from the limbs. These are the main fruit-bearing parts of the tree. Strictly speaking a lateral just refers to one-year-old wood, i.e., the shoots that grew in the summer just gone, but to keep things simple we use laterals to refer to any growth coming from a limb.

Spur: this is a collection of buds, mainly fruit buds but also leaf buds, on a lateral, some of which may also turn into new shoots. The older a spur is, the less likely it is to generate new shoots.

Some fruit trees are much more prone to developing spurs than others, e.g., pears, some apples, and some plums. Apricots can also form spurs. The spurs can keep bearing fruit for years and require little pruning. If they are getting too crowded it’s OK to do some ‘spur pruning’ to thin them out a bit.

Buds – fruit trees have fruit buds (which turn into flowers), leaf buds (which turn into leaves and shoots), and multiple buds that are a combination of the two.

Fruit buds tend to be fatter and a little furrier looking, and leaf buds tend to be flatter and less significant.

Understanding which part of the tree we’re talking about makes learning how to prune much easier, so next time you’re gazing lovingly at your fruit tree, make sure you can identify all its different bits!