After centuries of breeding for abundant production of unnaturally large fruit, deciduous fruit trees have become dependent on specialized pruning while they are dormant through winter. Without pruning, most eventually become overgrown and overwhelmed by their own fruit. The weight of excessive fruit disfigures and breaks limbs. Pathogens proliferate within distressed foliage, crowded fruit and surplus fruit that falls to the ground.
Pruning not only improves the structural integrity of the limbs, but also limits the production and weight of the fruit that will be produced. Limiting production concentrates resources, so that there are fewer but considerably better fruits, instead of too many inferior fruits. Concentrating the growth of the fewer new stems that develop in spring promotes vigorous growth that is more resistant to pathogens. Ideally, pruning also limits the height of fruit trees, so that much of the fruit develops closer to the ground.
Peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, prunes and cherries are all relates ‘stone’ fruits (of the genus Prunus), so require various degrees of similar pruning. Peach trees produce the heaviest fruit, so need the most aggressive pruning. Cherries trees produce significantly lighter and smaller fruit, so get pruned relatively minimally. Almonds – which are actually the “pits” of a similar type of stone fruit – get shaken from their trees, so there is no advantage to keeping production close to the ground.
The four Ds – which are dead, dying, diseased and damaged – stems should be pruned out first. Then the vigorous stems that grew last year should be thinned and cut back, but not removed completely. They are the stems that will bloom and develop fruit the following year. Pomme fruits, such as apples, pears and quinces, develop on similar, newer stems that should likewise be pruned down, but many also develop on lower spur stems that elongate so slowly that many spurs may never need to be pruned.
Most young deciduous fruit trees will need more pruning each year as they grow. Fortunately, pruning becomes more familiar with experience. Because pruning fruit trees is so specialized and important, it is worth studying more thoroughly. The few arborists who are qualified to prune fruit trees can not often justify doing so. The work is simply too involved and time consuming to be profitable. It would actually be less expensive to buy fruit than to get the trees that produce it pruned.
Of all the stone fruit trees like apricot, plum and cherry, none need more aggressive and specialized pruning while dormant in winter than peach, Prunus persica. The distinctively fuzzy fruit is so big and heavy that the weight of too much fruit tears limbs down. Pruning not only limits fruit production, but improves structural integrity, fruit weight distribution, fruit quality, and tree health. Mature trees should be kept less than ten feet tall, but often get twice as tall with much of the fruit out of reach. Because peach and related fruit trees are so susceptible to phytophthora, pruning tools should be sterilized between trees.
40101+: It is difficult to believe that most growth of the tree that produced these corpulent peaches gets removed every winter.
40101A: Deciduous fruit trees do not look like much after defoliating and getting the pruning they need while dormant in winter.