Pruning fruit trees is vital to their longevity, and an orchard can last for over 100 years if the fruit trees are cared for properly. Pruning can be intimidating for gardening novices, but fruit trees are actually quite forgiving, and small mistakes will not result in disaster. Pruning is paired with training to produce attractive looking fruit trees that generate a high yield of fruit. Pruning accomplishes several aims, all of which increase fruit production: exposing the tree more evenly to light, getting rid of excess leaders, and creating a balanced tree that will bear weight well.
To prune, you will need a ladder, pruning shears, and a pair of hand clippers. Sensible shoes are advised. Pruning should be carried out annually on all fruit trees, including those that are not yet bearing fruit, to create the framework for a healthy and long-living tree. Pruning is generally carried out in the early spring, when the danger of winter related damage has passed, but the tree has not yet started to bud in earnest. The exception to this rule is dead and diseased branches, as well as suckers, which may be removed at any time.
Fruit trees should have only one leader, or branch that shoots straight up. Multiple leaders will cause weak crotches to form, which will break under heavy loads of fruit or snow. Always remove side branches with narrow crotch angles, so that all the branches of the tree are evenly spaced with room to grow and exposure to sunlight.
When pruning fruit trees, look for inward growing branches, branches that rub together, drooping branches, and excessive branches. Also cut away low branches, leaving space beneath the tree for light and air. Do not climb in a fruit tree to prune, as doing so will stress the branches.
When pruning, decide whether you are going to thin a branch, removing it entirely, or head a branch, encouraging sideways growth. Look at the position of the branch in the tree and try to imagine how it will change as the tree grows older. If the branch looks as though it will interfere with a clean, open framework, trim it as close to the trunk or parent branch as you can. If the branch looks like it could be the basis of additional branches, building a larger and more supportive framework, cut it back, or head it, by 1/3 to 1/2 of its total length. Heading a branch stimulates the growth of side growing branches, which will help to establish a solid fruit bearing tree. Your goal is to create spurs for fruit to grow on.
When rehabilitating trees that have been neglected, several years of aggressive pruning may be indicated. Never cut away more than 1/4 of a tree's top growth, and be prepared to be patient. Do not apply fertilizer, to prevent substantial regrowth while you are refurbishing the tree. Neglected trees may take some time to bear fruit, so do not be disappointed by initial low yields. It is well worth refurbishing older neglected trees, as you may discover a tasty heritage fruit or hybrid that you cannot buy in a nursery.
Begin with large undesired branches, and progress to smaller low hanging branches, crossing branches, dead growth, and vertically growing shoots. After you have begun to reestablish a framework for the tree, the pruning project will appear much clearer. The goal with neglected trees is to thin out dense growth, get rid of unproductive branches that may break or obstruct others, and retrain the tree to achieve a higher yield. Most students of pruning err on the side of caution in the early stages. As long as you do not shock a tree by removing more than 1/4 of its top growth, and use your sense of logic, your fruit trees will appreciate the attention and return in kind with more fruit.