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Pruning of mature fruit trees

Mature apple tree (Malus 'Cortland')
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Normand Rosa)
Malus 'Cortland'

Maintenance pruning

In early spring, mature fruit trees should be given annual maintenance pruning to thin them and renew their fruit-bearing branches.

  • Never cut off the leader and avoid pruning the tips of fruit-bearing branches! This will encourage denser foliage and retard fruit bearing.
  • If you do have to shorten a branch, cut it back to just above an outward-growing bud or an outward-facing branch (directional pruning).
  • Remove all dead, diseased or poorly oriented branches; remove any lower branches that are located less than one metre off the ground.
  • Clear the center of the tree in order to make a chimney of light in the middle: remove the small branches and foliage located 30 cm around the trunk.
  • Remove all vertical stems (0 to 30°) on scaffold branches (suckers) or at the base of the trunk (water sprouts) and all branches that are turned too far downward (150 to 180°). These will rarely bear fruit.
  • To encourage fruiting, add weights to any scaffold branches that are growing too vertically, to make them bend slightly downward.
  • Do not remove the short stems (on 2 year-old wood and more), because they bear the fruit buds.
  • Renewal pruning: As the tree matures, eliminate primary branches before they get too big and start competing with the trunk and other branches for sap. Their diameter at the base should be 3 times less than the diameter of the trunk. Apply the same principle for the secondary branches.

During summer, very light pruning is enough to thin the canopy, clear foliage from around fruit as it forms or remove any excess fruit, where necessary.

  • Remove any sprouts and suckers that have appeared since the spring pruning; remove any branches located 30 cm around the trunk to allow light into the centre of the tree.
  • To obtain bigger fruits (apples and pears), pinch off a part of the young fruits or eliminate the ones located under the branches as they receive less sunshine. Keep the foliage on fruit-bearing stems. These leaves, which feed the fruit, produce up to four times more sugar than the other leaves.

Renewal pruning

Eliminate scaffold branches as soon as they start competing with the trunk and other branches for sap. The diameter of scaffold branches at their base should be 3 times less than the diameter of the trunk. Once you do so, new shoots will appear on the wound. Keep the strongest and best-oriented one to replace the one that you removed.

Apply the same rule for secondary branches considering the primary branch as a trunk, but avoid excess removal. The sum of the diameters (at their base) of the branches to be removed must equal the diameter (at the base) of the primary branch. If one must choose between two secondary branches, select the smallest one which will bend more easily and bear fruit more rapidly.

An old branch (8 years of fruit production) with a correct size may be rejuvenated by pruning it just above a young branch (secondary branch) so as to maintain a horizontal axis.

Short stems and fruit buds

Short stems, a few cm long, bear all the fruit production. They are composed of small wood buds and bigger fruit buds.

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