February is Time to Prune Fruit Trees

By David Beazlie, BSLA

David Beazlie – Pruning Apple Trees

February is prime time for fruit tree pruning in Sonoma County. Apples, pears, and plums are part of Sonoma County’s cultural heritage. Gravenstein apple trees are world heritage trees, which the Slow Food movement is protecting through its Ark of Taste program. It’s important that we learn to care for this heritage with loving and skillful hands. In this article I will give you tips to get you started learning how to prune and care for your apple trees.

My pruning style is not  for commercial production. I prune to strengthen the tree’s structure, to reveal its beauty, keep it smaller and help it live longer. Classic beauty, the long-term health of the tree and bounteous fruit production are the combined results of this type of hand pruning.

Observation and a sense of connection are keys to good pruning. Observe the tree for its natural shape. Before you start cutting, imagine the tree in its best form with weak branches cut, an open canopy that will allow sunlight to reach leaves and fruit, and a lovely round shape.

Learn to recognize fruit spurs and leaf buds A fruit spur is a short (3-5″) branch where the apple tree flowers and sets fruit. Leaf buds are tightly compacted buds produced laterally or at the tips of the current season’s shoots.

Tree characteristics:

Pruning for light, air, and shape

Pruning for light, air, and shape

Pruning is creating a healthy balance of leaves, strength and fruit. Trees need leaves with sun exposure to produce the sugars that feed each tree.

When the tree goes dormant in winter and drops its leaves, the roots store the sugars. This is the ideal time for major annual pruning of fruit trees before leaf buds and fruit spurs bloom. I use a central leader style for pruning apples, which means you allow a central vertical branch to be the center of the tree and other branches to emerge from it. This produces the best distribution of sunlight on the leaves.

Prune for health of tree structure and remove damaged branches. Disease & insects can infest trees with splintered, broken branches. Winter storms can break branches that are too heavy or long. In summer, the weight of fruit can break branches. Good pruning prevents such damage. It’s not necessary to paint the exposed wood when cutting large branches. Don’t cut big branches flush with the tree but allow a little wood so the tree will form a collar of bark.

Cut at a 45-degree angle just above the bud

Suckers (branches growing from the base of the tree), whorls (branches that grow from and encircle another branch) and water sprouts (thin branches that usually grow straight upright) are not going to bear fruit. Removing them early in pruning will also help you see the structure of your tree and make it easier to see where further cuts are necessary. Removing competing suckers and unproductive wood encourages the tree to grow more fruiting spurs.

Leave a balance of branches that reach out and up. Cut out competing branches growing closely together so you have an open canopy and leave the strongest upward growing branch. Cut just above buds and spurs facing outward or upward. Cut at a 45-degree angle with the highest side just above the bud (1/4”).



Careful use of tools and a proper orchard ladder are key to safety. I use bypass hand shears, loppers, and a folding pruning saw. Keep shears and loppers sharp and clean. Sharp tools allow you to cut without crushing, bruising or tearing the branch or its bark. Prevent the spreading of disease by cleaning cutting tools after pruning each tree. I use a spray bottle of 1/2 water and 1/2 a blend of  a natural cleaner and essential oils. You can sharpen with a small flat sharpening stone. I use an aluminum orchard ladder because they are lightweight, easy to handle, and safe. 8-10 ft. tall ladders are adequate for home use.

Apple Care Calendar:

In fall, cleanup, compost & dispose of your fallen fruit in green waste to prevent disease & pests. Mineral soil amendments may be added if needed, including Phosphorous (P), Potassium (K)(clean wood ashes), oyster shell, and agricultural lime. In winter, do heaviest structural pruning. In spring, apply Nitrogen (N) if needed for leaf growth when soil is warm. In early summer, cut fruit spur clusters from 3 to 1 and thin excessive foliage growth for an open canopy. In mid-summer, cull fruit clusters so only 2 or 3 apples are in a cluster. Once apples are grown and ripe, enjoy a great harvest!


A great free guide is the University of California Davis’ web site for The California Back Yard Orchard: http://homeorchard.ucdavis.edu. Web sites and pruning books can be good sources of information, but there’s nothing like being coached by an experienced pruner while you are pruning.

David is a graduate of Cal Poly in Landscape Architecture, and has run his own landscape design business in Sonoma County since 1991. He believes that a beautiful garden sanctuary not only creates a peaceful refuge for humans, but also can contain all the elements of a healthy ecosystem. Contact David at jbeazlie@yahoo.com.

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