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Winter pruning considerations for fruit trees

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  • Apple crop coming in large and sweet

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    Jose Sanchez picks red delicious apples for Morris Orchard earlier last fall. Winter months serve as an opportunity to evaluate the health and condition of fruit trees and make plans to improve them.

Posted: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 10:14 am

Although colder temperatures have had some difficultly in consistently finding us in Amherst County, there are several months of winter weather still ahead. This provides those of us with fruit trees an excellent opportunity to evaluate the health and conditions of our trees, and make plans to improve them.

The dormant season is an important time for fruit trees; proper pruning just prior to active growth can improve tree health, limit risk of disease, and improve fruit quality.

Woody plants are pruned for a variety of reasons. In the instance of ornamental plants, pruning is primarily done for aesthetic purposes only. Fruit trees, however, are pruned not only for aesthetics, but also to improve the reproductive and fruiting capability of the plant by balancing vegetative growth with reproductive growth. The phrase “form follows function,” coined by the American architect Louis Sullivan, has applications in biology — and fruit trees are no different.

Pruning procedures vary with the age, variety and species of fruit tree.

Newly planted fruit trees should be pruned to encourage lateral development of buds from which to select limbs that can support a large fruit yield. Pruning young fruit trees to encourage proper structure that can support high quality yields of fruit is also known as training. Training trees properly is vitally important, as improper pruning can greatly reduce yields and result in mangled growth, which could necessitate heavy pruning. Such heavy pruning, in turn, could result in further declines in fruit produced by the tree in successive years.

Please consult online publications such as “Tree Fruit in the Home Garden” on the Virginia Cooperative Extension website ( for specific recommendations.

Retain horizontal limbs that are at an angle of 40 to 65 degrees from the center of the tree. 60 degrees is considered the optimal angle, and any scaffolds used to support or direct limbs should reflect this. Consider removing any limbs that are outside of the desirable range. Horizontal growth that is near a 90-degree angle is undesirable, as it could result in production of water sprouts. Dead, unproductive limbs or those that are shading out more productive branches should be removed.

The age, productive history, type and variety of tree and shape of the tree itself are among important considerations when pruning and training your fruit trees. Remember that pruning is a necessary step to promote healthy productive growth of trees, but often will result in a short-term reduction of yields through the next growing season.

Pruning trees and ornamental plants is an art form, and there are always tradeoffs with no one best method to prune every tree. Please do not hesitate to contact the Amherst Extension office (434) 946-9365 or the Nelson Extension office (434) 263-4035 if you have any questions.

John Benner is the Agricultural and Natural Resources Extension Agent for Virginia Cooperative Extension in Amherst County. He lives in Madison Heights. Contact him at (434) 946-9365 or


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