Now is a good time to prune overgrown fruit trees. Deciduous fruit trees that frequently become overgrown include apple, peach, nectarine and plum. Occasionally, pear and fig trees may become overgrown.
The main objective is to open the tree to allow more light penetration into the tree’s interior or center. This often results in better flowering and fruit production.
A second objective is to shorten some of the limbs to bring the fruit production down to a more manageable height.
Start by removing diseased, broken or injured branches and limbs. You’ll need a pruning saw for the larger limbs. Lopping shears can be used to remove branches that are no larger than an inch in diameter.
Next, take out branches that rub against each other or that cross and may rub in the future. When dealing with rubbing or crossing branches, it’s usually best to remove the one growing toward the center of the tree. The objective is to open the tree. Removing limbs that cross not only helps open the tree but it helps reduce wounds created from the constant rubbing of the branches. The open wounds allow diseases or insects easy entry.
After removing crossing limbs, you’re ready to prune out vigorous, upright shoots from the tree interior. These limbs are called water sprouts. Apples, peaches nectarines and pears commonly produce water sprouts. Water sprouts are fast growing limbs that grow straight up. They generally do not contribute much to fruit production but use water and nutrients. You should be able to use lopping shears to remove most of the water sprouts.
Next, turn your attention to root suckers, if present. These are, essentially, water sprouts originating from the roots. They are usually small in diameter and can be pruned with hand pruners or lopping shears.
After the thinning process, consider how much you wish to reduce the tree height. Reducing the height of fruit trees such as peach, nectarine, plum and fig makes it easier to reach the fruit when spraying or harvesting. As you shorten the tall limbs, cut back to outwardly facing side limbs or buds. You want the new lateral growth to head outward.
Moderation is the best rule when pruning trees. With neglected, overgrown trees, a drastic pruning now may stimulate excessive vegetative growth at the expense of fruit production this spring. Do not remove more than one third of the top growth. At any point in the process of pruning as described above, stop pruning when you’ve removed one third. Removing anymore can ruin the structure of the tree. You can pick up where you left off next winter.