2014 24.1 Pruning Strategies From Cloudview Ecofarms’ Jim Baird: “Know Your Objectives, Know Your Variables”

As I’ve thought about writing a bit on the basics of pruning fruit trees, the weather has gotten colder, the daylight hours fewer—and with the transition my thoughts changed from the relief of last season’s completion to preparing for next year.

I think the main concept I would like to impart around pruning is that when approaching the project one should have foremost in their mind what it is that they wish to achieve. If you don’t understand what it is that you wish to achieve probably just leave the tree alone.

Some of the objectives that I have in mind each year when looking at my trees derive from the results of last year’s fruit and/or tree growth.

  • How was the fruit last year?
  • How did the trees react?
  • What was their ‘crop load’ in relation to their vigor or terminal end growth?
  • What was the quality and size of the fruit?


All of these factors are considered when thinking about how to prune the tree for the upcoming season.
I believe pruning is the single most important act that an orchardist does to affect the long-term viability and health of their trees.

There are basically two things I encourage you to consider now. One, what do you desire out of your tree? Two, what do you desire out of your fruit? Pruning a young orchard that needs more growth than fruit to continue filling out its space takes a completely different approach than a fully-grown orchard where maintenance pruning is being applied.

Allow the light to reach in

I like to think of pruning as a ‘ living, moving three-dimensional sculpturing process’—a living ‘reacting’ art form that I physically sculpt with my pruners as I move around the tree considering its shapes, its interactions with where light comes into its branches, its proximity to other branches, its position on the tree…
Remember that—unlike row crops—with a tree you are attempting to maximize interception of light as you work with a taller, more vertical three-dimensional aspect. Sunlight is important for the fruit and for the fruiting spurs. Keeping a mature tree viable over years is about pruning to allow light to reach inside the tree in whatever technique is appropriate.

Balance between growth and fruiting wood

The word ‘balance’ is ever present in my mind. If I have a young tree, I want the balance to be tipped towards growth with less emphasis on fruiting wood. If I’m dealing with a mature fully -grown tree, the I think of the balance between the fruiting wood and the renewal wood (or renewal ‘spurs’).

Walk through your pruning objectives

As I examine the tree to be pruned, I first observe it as I am walking up to it. I look at its overall shape and structure. Then I look at the ends of the branches to see how much terminal end growth came last year.
Identify where the branches began their growth in the past season and where they ended up at the end of the present season. And identify where the growth was… On the top of the tree? On suckers coming from inside horizontal branches? On the terminal ends of trees? Did it grow too much or did it grow too little?
I mostly understand apple trees, but, I think these approaches can be applied to most fruit trees. I also look for ‘crowding’ and too many branches in places where I don’t want them. Shaping and opening up a tree for light interception is extremely important

What was last harvest’s fruit quality?

Two variables are in my mind as I approach the tree to be pruned, and the first one is: “What was the fruit quality from last year? Was it too small? Was it too big? Did it have limb rub or poor color?” And then my mind goes back to what my objectives are for the fruit for the upcoming season. If I am having trouble with small size, and/or limb rub, I look to open up my trees by cutting a few more branches. If the fruit was fine, I look to maintain that quality and then I look to remove maybe a few of the larger branches but I basically minimize too extreme of cutting….


Another variable is ‘fertility’ in the soil. I usually apply my compost, bone meal, gypsum, or whatever soil amendment is needed in the fall. I try to understand what kind of fertility the soil and tree have, so as to know how the tree might react to my pruning. Heavy pruning with a high fertility situation will get more shoot growth than I probably want for a mature tree.

Think three years out

Factors to remember with most fruit trees is that harder pruning gets more regrowth the next year. With lighter pruning the tree reacts less radically.

If I have a renewal project, as tempting as it is to want to shape the tree completely in one year, I try to view the year’s pruning as part of three years of ‘cuts’ to get the tree back into shape.

So, know your objectives, know your variables (past fruit load and quality, vigor in your soil, last year’s tree growth) and then go out into the winter have some fun with a dynamic art form known as Pruning!

Jim Baird is the owner of Cloudview Ecofarms, a non-profit organization focused on experiential education, community involvement, and ecological farming. Engaged in fruit production and apple growing for 35 years, Jim is passionate about good tree structure, healthy soils, and growing as healthy of food as possible for society. cloudviewecofarm.org

Tags: Cloudview EcoFarms, Orchard, Planning, Pruning, Tree Fruit