Sure, winter’s a time when you can take it a bit slower in the gardening department, but you can’t rest on your laurels entirely – especially if you’ve got deciduous fruit trees to prune. You can start as early as November and prune as late as March, depending on the variety of trees you’ve got, their location and the stage of the flower buds. (You should prune before buds start to swell or bloom.)

Water sprouts

Cut off all water sprouts for a more vigorous tree.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet


When removing suckers, cut close to the base of the trunk.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet

Mumified fruit

Remove any diseased or mummified fruit from your trees.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet

Open central pruning

The open-center pruning method lets in lots of air and sun for better health and more fruit.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet

Central leader pruning

The central-leader method creates a pyramidal shape that allows for good light exposure from top to bottom.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet

To get the job done you’ll need hand-pruning shears, loppers, a pruning saw, a ladder for tall trees and a bucket if you’re planning to save cuttings for grafting. (And if you’re saving cuttings, bring a roll of masking tape and a permanent marker for labeling.) Before starting, make sure your tools are sharp and clean, and bring rubbing alcohol and a rag outside with you so you can clean the blades between working on individual trees.

For all varieties of mature deciduous fruit trees, follow these first easy steps to get your pruning started:

First, prune crossing and diseased branches. Make a clean cut all the way back to the main limb or trunk – and don’t forget to clean your tools with rubbing alcohol each time after pruning any diseased branches. Next, remove water sprouts with sharp, clean cuts. Then remove suckers all the way back to the trunk. Don’t forget to remove any diseased and mummified fruit from your orchard (and keep them away from your other trees). Finally, stand back and take another look at your tree to see if more pruning is needed.

Now’s the time to determine the best pruning method for your tree variety. The two most common are “open center” (which is suitable for peaches, apricots, plums and apples that are upright-growing and extra vigorous) and “central leader” (which works for all other varieties of apples and pears).

The open-center method is just like it sounds – it produces a tree with an open center for good air flow and a healthy, disease-resistant fruit tree. The key is to start this pruning technique when the tree is young. When it’s first planted, cut the tree back to 24-32 inches tall, depending on how low you want the major limbs to form. Strong, well-spaced limbs (like the spokes of a wheel) should be 6-10 inches below that cut and will become the primary scaffold branches. Cut the branches back to two buds and remove any weak and crossing limbs.

Every year thereafter, remove any branches that grow inside the center of the tree so that plenty of sunshine and air movement gets to the center for better disease prevention and higher fruit yields. Also cut back all remaining branches by 1/3 and thin out crowded areas. When you’re pruning, make sure that the branches are evenly spaced throughout the tree and that the lower limbs remain longer than upper ones.

On the other end of the pruning spectrum is the central-leader method. As the name suggests, this technique produces a strong, straight-trunked, pyramid-shaped tree. Pruning should start when a tree is first planted. Cut it back to 24-32 inches tall and trim back any side branches to two buds. During successive years of pruning, make sure the top shoot is the leader, and pinch back all other shoots.

During the first winter – if your tree has grown vigorously – select a first set of scaffold branches 2-3 feet from the ground. The three to five branches you select should spiral around the trunk, with about 4 inches between succeeding branches. Then cut off all other side branches and vertical stems that compete with the central leader. Cut back the central leader, too, making sure it’s still the highest part of the tree. In the second or third year, depending on how the tree grows, select another set of scaffold branches 2-3 feet higher than the first set. Continue selecting scaffold limbs until you have three or four sets of them. As with the open-center pruning method, keep lower limbs longer than upper ones.

Finally, be sure to dispose of your tree cuttings properly, either by chipping and using the mulch in other areas of your garden (but only if the cuttings are disease-free) or by curbside recycling. Once your trees are trimmed up into shape, you can sit back and truly enjoy the fruits of your labor.