Winter Pruning & Training [Fruit Tree Care, Part 3]

Grab your Felcos, folks, it’s winter fruit tree pruning season! We’re happy to share thirteen reputable winter fruit tree pruning and training resources so you can give your tree the love and support it needs to produce really delicious, sweet fruit season after season.

Man holding hand pruners up to a tree branch to winter prune.

If you don’t know what “Felcos” are, they are a brand that makes pruning tools like the hand pruners David Robles (second-year apprentice at the UCSC Farm & Garden) is holding in the photo above.

1. Before you start cutting any branches, learn how to identify the different buds your tree produces: fruit buds and vegetative buds. The Walden Effect has this brief resource for identifying buds on different kinds of trees.

2. If you have trees that aren’t described on the website above, the UC Davis Fruit & Nut Research & Information Center has educational guides for a variety of fruit and nut trees, including photos of flower formation that will help you identify fruit buds.

3. For an overview of fruit tree pruning and training, start with UCSC Chadwick Garden Manager Orin Martin’s “Thoughts on Pruning & Training Deciduous Fruit Trees.” He describes the goals and methods of training and pruning, various pruning cuts, and the open center tree form in this article.

4. You can also watch Orin Martin and UCSC Chadwick Garden Assistant Manager Sky DeMuro explain fruit tree pruning during a workshop at UC Santa Cruz. Watch the video below or on Youtube: “Fruit Tree Pruning with Orin Martin.”

5. The University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources has a website focused on Home Orchard Care. There’s a whole section on Pruning & Training that covers the basics of why we prune fruit trees, two major types of pruning cuts, different tree forms, how to prune overgrown trees, and much more.

Illustration of a hand holding open pruners against a branch near a bud.

Heading Cut. License: Creative Commons. Source: WikiHow.

Hand holding open pruners at the base of a branch.

Thinning Cut. License: Creative Commons. Source: WikiHow.

6. At the time of planting, you can start pruning your new tree to a Modified Central Leader or Open Center form. Orchard Keepers has a resource with photos showing how to prune at the time of planting on their website (click Prune and it will reveal the step-by-step guide and images). Their website has additional tree care considerations, as well.

Drawing of hand pruners with the words "Choose your Leader."

“Choose your leader” is fruit tree pruning advice that also serves a political statement! Spotted in the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems Farm Center.

7. Effective pruning requires not only the knowledge and skills of what to do, but also the right tools! Learn what pruning equipment Orin Martin recommends in his article, “Tools of the Fruit Tree Trade.” In addition to these tools, be sure to get a sturdy tripod orchard ladder if you have any trees that are too tall to prune from the ground.

8. OSHA has some information here about how to safely use an orchard ladder.

Man standing on an orchard ladder holding long-arm pruners toward tree.
9. Tree training–the shaping of branches by physically moving them to a different place–has its own set of tools, including stakes, string, weights, and notched spreaders. For the spreaders, you can make your own with lath from the lumber yard and cut notches into them, or buy metal ones (we recommend these). Learn how to train your tree branches by tying them to a stake or rock on the ground with this video: “How to train a new fruit tree” from Edible Backyard on Youtube.

10-12. Other useful resources related to training include “Tree Limb (Branch) Spreaders (video) by Gregory Shaffer,” “Fruit Tree Care: Using Tree Limb Spreaders” by Stark Bros Nursery, and “Making and Using Fruit Tree Limb Weights” (video) by John Trout.

13. Have an apple tree, or want to learn about other tree training forms? Scroll to page three of Orin Martin’s “Apple Trees for Every Garden” article for an introduction to winter pruning strategies for apple trees. Orin goes explains three tree forms you can achieve through different pruning and training techniques: Modified Central Leader, Slender Spindle System, and Vertical Axis/French Axe.

Woman in a hat holding a branch with one hand and pruning the end with hand pruners.

Fruit tree pruning is a skill that takes years of practice and experience to master, but the good news is that now is the time to start learning! Pay attention throughout the year to how your tree reacts to any pruning and training you do this winter.

You can winter prune your trees from November until early-March in the Santa Cruz area, or in the time between leaf fall and when the buds begin flowering. Winter pruning for most of us occurs in January or February.

You can train your trees throughout the year, although the earlier you can train new, supple growth, the more success you’ll have. Young tender branches can be moved dramatically without snapping, and while older branches can also be moved they do not move as much and are more difficult. Branches trained in spring will take weeks to “fix” in place, whereas branches trained in fall/winter will take longer because the sap isn’t flowing as actively.

Each year, continue to practice pruning and training by building upon what you learn from your previous attempts. It can help to have an experienced pruner around to talk through your approach when you’re getting started or reviewing how a tree has (or hasn’t) responded to your pruning strategy.

Once you’ve done some preliminary learning from books, the resources above, and/or watching experienced pruners, get out there and prune–it’s really the best way to understand! Once you start, you’ll find pruning can be a meditative and creative form of artistic expression, and you’ll be helping the tree realize its full, fruitful potential! If you do it right, the reward is oh so sweet–delicious, juicy fruit and lots of it!

Want additional support with fruit tree pruning, or want Santa Cruz Permaculture to come help you prune your trees? Sign up for a consultation through our website; we’d love to help your trees thrive!

This is part three in a series of posts about fruit tree planting and care throughout the seasons. Read other posts about fruit trees here.

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