Pruning Fruit Trees

Asked February 28, 2016, 10:58 AM EST

What is the best way to prune fruit trees that have been neglected for years. Also, what time of year should I prune?

Clackamas County Oregon

1 Response

Restoring long-neglected, overgrown fruit trees is one of the most difficult challenges that a home gardener can take on--and proper pruning, while critical, is far from the only work that will need to be done.

Unfortunately, while it is easy to find advice on restoration pruning on the web, much of the information --even from educational (.edu) sites-- is wrong: sometimes because it predates or ignores current best practice, sometimes because it is simply wrong, but most often because it oversimplifies so much that attempting to follow it without extensive existing skills results in atrocious outcomes.

I've provided a good references below, but before deciding to invest the substantial resources to do this right, please ask yourself the following questions:
a) Am you sure that this tree produces a specific variety of fruit that I really like to eat? It is unfortunately common for homeowners to spend years bringing back a fruit tree, only to discover that when restored it bears a type of apple/pear/cherry/whatever that they find substantially inferior to what they could purchase in the grocery store.
b) Am you willing to spend at least three years doing restoration pruning before getting a good harvest? And am you willing to engage in the substantial ongoing pruning work to maintain the tree over time?
c) Completely apart from the pruning required, are you willing to spend the substantial time and effort required in annual non-pruning care required to keep the tree healthy and productive? This can be substantial even if you are willing to use chemicals, and will be substantially more time-consuming if you wish to proceed organically.
d) Are you willing to invest in appropriate tools, including a three-legged orchard ladder, and are you willing to spend a fair amount of time on that ladder each year? Ladder work is much less safe than working on the ground--ask any ER physician about causes of common homeowner (or commercial pruner!) injuries, and ladder work frequently tops the list. While if you start over and plant a new small tree you can, with skillful pruning and care, keep it small enough to tend without a ladder and still get a family-sized harvest, it is almost always impossible to bring a neglected or overgrown tree down to that size.
e) Are you willing to give up the amount of yard space that these fruit trees, even if reduced in size, will perpetually occupy?

If no, consider having these trees removed, and replant with small trees, on seriously dwarfing rootstocks, that bear exactly the kind of fruit that you and your family most love.

If yes, the best single source of information for renovation pruning for overgrown and neglected fruit trees is a book you can almost always find in your library: Brickell and Joyce "The American Horticultural Society Pruning and Training". (That looks like a typo, but isn't.) Pages 102 & 103 gives clear instructions of what to do each year, including diagrams with little red "cut here" marks. (The rest of the book provides excellent guidance on pruning new fruit trees of all types, as well as everything else in your yard.)

But--before proceeding, please consider carefully whether investing in this project is actually worthwhile to you!