To prune or not to prune?

By Pam Roy, edited by Bruce Gaudette | Feb 24, 2010

The yearly calendar of garden chores has catapulted ahead of schedule with this winter’s warm temperatures.  Pruning of many fruit trees is often performed during late winter and early spring during the dormant state.  All indications seem to point to the imminent arrival of spring.


Your first question might be “Why do I need to prune my trees?” 


Here are some reasons to prune:

-  Establish the basic form or structure of a tree.  Proper pruning establishes the major scaffold branches of a tree.  These need to be properly spaced.

- Open up the canopy to provide light to the center of the tree, allowing fruit to mature and color better.  This also provides better air circulation helping to prevent disease.

-  Remove dead or diseased wood

- Remove storm damage

- Removing crossing or rubbing branches and inward growing branches

- Remove watersprouts or “suckers” that grow vigorously straight upward


There are three major types of pruning :

1)  Thinning:  removes an entire branch back to the main trunk. This does not leave any bare stems.

2)  Heading back:  removing part of a branch or stem at a predetermined point, not necessarily to a side stem or bud .  While heading back  may be useful to establish shape of young trees, it is generally not recommended as it encourages  overcrowded upright growth at pruning cuts.

3)  Rejuvenating:  removal of major branches or overall reduction in size of tree.


When unsure as to the best type of pruning, remember the old gardener’s axiom “when in doubt, prune out.”  This will usually give the best long-term results.


The three main tools to use for typical pruning of fruit trees or ornamental plants are

hand pruners, loppers and pruning saws.   Hand pruners are best used on branches less than 1/2 inch in diameter.  If you find yourself using a sawing or twisting motion with the hand pruners, it’s time to move up to a pair of loppers.  Use loppers on branches 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter. 

Branches over one inch in diameter should be pruned with a pruning saw.  The small folding handsaws can be quite effective, while some prefer the longer handled saws.  If you have a lot of pruning to do, the fixed blade saws with a pistol type grip and a scabbard that hangs on you belt are easier to manage when going back and forth between saw and pruners.


Keep your pruners sharp!.  Sharp tools cause less damage to the plant.  Keep your pruning shears sharp with a sharpening stone or small, fine file.  Pruning shears that have severe nicks in the blade may need to be ground with a grinder.  Better quality pruners like Felco’s have replacement blades available. 

Disinfect pruning tools after pruning diseased wood and before moving to the next plant to minimize the spread of disease.  Dip the pruners in a bucket with 1 gallon of water mixed with 1 cup of bleach.  After doing this, you should rinse thoroughly to remove the bleach and then coat with a light oil to guard against rust.


Know the growth and flowering and fruiting habits of the plant you are pruning. Some plants flower on last season’s wood and are best pruned late summer, just after flowering.  Some fruit trees bear fruit on 1 year old wood, others on older wood. Check with a nursery or the WSU Extension Office.   Many dwarf fruit trees need little pruning…which is a very nice thing indeed.


Happy pruning!!!


AND LEST WE FORGET…Be sure to attend the Everett Home and Garden Show the first weekend in March (5th – 7th) at Comcast Arena to see the beautiful garden display that we have been preparing for everyone’s viewing pleasure!  Look for us at the east end of the main concourse just after exiting the ballroom display area.



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