Final notes on fruit tree pruning

I think I’ve got a bit obsessed about pruning my fruit trees – still, I think this is the last word on the matter.

There are basically 2 schools of thought when it comes to how to prune apple and pear trees – the old-fashioned spur pruning, and the more modern renewal pruning. Renewal pruning is quicker and simpler to explain, and it is what is used commercially (in systems that prune at all). However, I think spur pruning looks nicer. In a garden, it’s not all about efficiency. So, when I started renovating the orchard, I used the renewal pruning techniques because they’re what I was taught at Garden Organic. And they’re what I always advised other people to use because they’re easy to teach, easy instructions to follow, hard to go wrong. But my trees look like this:

Renewal pruned trees

Renewal pruned trees

And I like a more tra;ditional look. Renewal pruning relies on the tendency of unpruned laterals (branches come off the main framework branches) to produce flower buds lower down. So the priniciple with apples is to leave everything younger than 4 years alone, and remove everything 4 years old. With pears, it’s 3 years, and 2 year old laterals are lightly pruned. This works, but leads to -lots of elongated reach-for-the-sky growth. And it’s not pretty.

So I last year (Winter 2012/13) I decided to try spur pruning on the bottom portion of the orchard. I was so pleased with the results that I extended the system in 2013/14 into some trees in the middle section. Next year, I shall prune the whole orchard this way. Spur pruning involves pruning all the long laterals back to 4 or 5 buds to encourage spur systems to develop. Whole spur systems are removed when they become too crowded.

Spur system

Spur system

Whenever you prune back to a fruit bud, that stops the system developing further, but the fruit buds remain and will produce flowers and fruit each year:

Fruit bud on apple tree

Fruit bud on apple tree

However, if you prune back to a wood bud, then the system continues to expand. Once you cut back to four or five wood buds, then the lower ones usually transform themselves into fruit buds, while to upper ones grow on:

Wood bud an apple tree

Wood bud an apple tree

So you can see that you can have control over how each spur system develops, or doesn’t.

In all this discussion I’ve not mention tip-bearers once. Some varieties of apples and pears bear their fruit on the tips, rather than on spurs. Some are a mixture of the two. Ones that are a mixture can be treated as I have described for spur-bearers. True tip-bearers are actually pretty rare. ‘Worcester Pearmain’ is a tip-bearing apple variety you may come across. But any others are relatively unknown. If you have a particularly old orchard or have inherited one in a garden of rare and unusual plants, it’s probably worth checking and seeking out some appropriate instructions. Also, if you’ve tried the methods I’ve described are still have very little fruit. But otherwise, don’t worry about this distinction.

Finally, I’d say, ‘just do it’! When I started restoring our orchard about 5 years ago I really wasn’t sure about what I was doing. Yes, I’d been taught at Garden Organic, but I was nervous about such drastic pruning of my trees. But I told myself that the only way to learn was to get on and try it. And if I did kill all the trees, well, I could have the pleasure of planning a new orchard (and the expense too). But I knew that actually killing them was unlikely – the worst that was likely to happen was that we’d be without fruit for a few years. And that hasn’t happened. The trees looks great, are producing better than ever, and better quality fruit too. And I feel like I know what I’m doing. Learning something new and complicated is always a pleasure, and in this case it has taken around 5 years.


RHS Growing Fruit by Harry Baker

RHS Pruning by Christopher Brickell

About Home on the Hill

Organic gardening, chook keeping, permaculture, knitting, sewing, cooking, in lovely Warwickshire in the English midlands.
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4 Responses to Final notes on fruit tree pruning

  1. Maggi Brown says:

    I remember doing a course at Pershore some years ago. After they had ‘shown us’ what to do, we were let loose on old trees. It was truly terrifying – all these branches! Which ones to cut and which ones to leave? Seems to me that you’ve done a really good job – working up a system and learning and gaining confidence as you go.
    One question I have – do you tie branches down at all? To get them to grow more horizontally? That was something I saw being done at Pershore – pruners ( professionals, working at top speed, frighteningly efficient) would snip out all unwanted growth then weave branches down into others lower down the tree to force growth to develop along otherwise ’empty’ branches. And I was told that in some orchards, where branches are thicker, they actually hang heavy weights, such as old fridges (!!!!) on branches, to pull them into the horizontal. But that maybe a thing of the past now.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I’ve never bothered tying the branches down, although it is something I’ve heard of and seen at Ryton and Wisley. My thinking was that mine is just a home orchard, so I’m not too bothered about maximising fruit production – just getting it to be good quality on good-looking trees. Also, the weights and lines would get in the way of the lawnmower! I’d love to see a tree with attached fridge!
    Carrie x

  3. Pingback: Summer Orchard Pruning | The Urban Orchard Project

  4. Pingback: Summer Orchard Pruning

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