Pruning For Potted Fruit Trees – How To Prune A Potted Fruit Tree

By: Teo Spengler

Pruning fruit trees in containers is generally a breeze whencompared with pruning fruit trees in the orchard. Since gardeners usuallychoose dwarf cultivars for container planting, potted fruit tree pruning isless arduous. And easy access to the tree is guaranteed. If you are wonderinghow to prune a potted fruit tree, you’ll be happy to hear that it’s notdifficult. Read on for tips on how and when to prune fruit trees in pots.

Pruning for Potted Fruit Trees

Pruning fruit trees is a very important element ofmaintenance, whether the trees grow in the orchard or in containers on theporch or patio. Trimming helps keep the tree the size and shape you want it tobe and maintains the tree’s health.

Potted fruit tree pruning, like pruning field fruit trees,can also have a beneficial effect on fruit production. Almost any type of fruittree can be grown in a pot, and each must be pruned to keep it happyand thriving. In short, pruning for potted fruit trees is just as important asregular fruit tree trimming.

Since the goals of pruning fruit trees in containers are thesame as for planted fruit trees, the techniques you use are also the same. Butit’s easier. Most gardeners pick short, compact cultivars or dwarf varietiesfor container trees. Their smaller size means easier pruning. You won’t have toremove long branches when you trim.

How to Prune a Potted Fruit Tree

The first item on the pruning priority list is always doneto maintain tree health. You need to prune out all dead, damaged or diseasedbranches. Regular attention to this aspect of pruning for potted trees canprevent a small problem from becoming a big one.

You’ll also want to focus on clearing out the inside of thecontainer fruit tree’s canopy. Removing the twigs and new shoots that appear inthe center of the canopy means that foliage and fruit will grow outside, wherethey can get sunshine and ample airflow.

Last, you prune to keep the size of the tree down. Duringthe first few years, just prune container trees lightly, allowing them to growa little taller each year. After they reach a good size for the container,you’ll need to keep them that size.

Alternatively, you can repot a tree in spring, using aslightly larger container. If you do, trim off a little of the rootball and asimilar amount of foliage.

When to Prune Fruit Trees in Pots

Just like the fruit trees in your orchard, you need to pruneyour container fruit trees at the appropriate time. When to prune fruit treesin pots? It depends on the circumstances.

Many fruit trees are deciduous, losing their leaves in lateautumn and starting new growth in spring. Any major pruning should be saveduntil after the container tree is dormant. Some gardeners prefer to prune justafter the leaves fall, but many recommend pruning early in spring.

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How to Prune a Potted Lemon Tree

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Dwarf lemon trees (Citrus limon) make the best choice for growing in containers because their height is limited to about 12 feet. While potted lemons don't require pruning to control height, regular pruning still is necessary to encourage outward growth for better fruit production. Additionally, diseased and damaged branches must be removed immediately to prevent disease from spreading throughout the lemon tree. Common dwarf lemon varieties include "Meyer" lemon (Citrus x meyeri) and "Eureka" lemons (Citrus limon "Eureka"), which grow to 12 feet and 10 feet tall, respectively.

Disinfect your pruning tools with a solution of 10-percent bleach, which contains one part bleach and nine parts water. Bypass pruners work well for clipping small branches less than 1/2 inch in diameter. Prune 1/2- to 1-1/2 inch diameter branches with lopping shears. Use a pruning saw for larger branches.

Clip off any root suckers that grow up from the ground below the graft union. Cut them with bypass pruners, making the cut as far down below soil level as possible. These suckers can be removed at any time throughout the growing season.

Cut diseased, broken and dead branches off the tree as they develop throughout the year. Make the cut 1/4 inch above a branch union or bud, cutting back to at least 6 inches inside healthy wood. If an entire branch must be removed, cut it just outside the branch collar which is the wrinkly collar around the joint that protects the tree from disease. Disinfect your pruning tools immediately after cutting these types of branches to avoid spreading disease elsewhere.

Clip off any water shoots back to the parent branch. A water shoot is a vigorous grower that commonly shoots straight up from stronger branches. They rarely grow into productive branches and simply crowd other healthy branches. These occur throughout the year and can be pruned at any time.

Eliminate any rubbing or crossing branches to encourage an outward growing habit with an open center, so sunlight reaches all the branches. Cut these branches back to 1/4 inch above an outward-facing bud or just above the branch collar. Wait until late winter to prune these branches, after the tree is done fruiting, but before new growth begins.

Clip any long, straight branches 1/4 inch above an outward-facing bud to encourage branching. The tree will produce more fruit and have a better shape if it has many short branches as opposed to a few long, straight branches.

Cut back any overgrowing branches to 1/4 inch above a healthy bud to maintain a uniform shape. This type of pruning should be done in late winter after harvest but before new growth begins.

How and when to prune peach, nectarine, apricot and plum trees

Pruning is a word that strikes terror in many a gardener's green heart, but it really shouldn't.

Done properly, pruning is one of the most important skills for a gardener to master. It helps solve all sorts of growth, habit and performance problems for plants, and generally improves their health and vigour.

But done badly – or without a clear purpose in mind – pruning can cause problems too, so before you pick up a pair of secateurs it's best to have a clear idea of what you are wanting to achieve, when is the best time to act to achieve it and how the plant you are pruning is likely to respond.

Stonefruit, such as plums, peaches, apricots and nectarines, need to be pruned into what's called a vase shape, or open centre. Having an open centre, which effectively means removing the main trunk, helps with air flow to reduce pest and disease build-up and allows easier access to blossoms for bees for increased pollination. Without an open habit, dense branches will be shaded and will not crop prolifically.

Most young stonefruit trees bought from a garden centre will have the central leader and many branches. Choose the strongest four or five branches that are evenly spaced around the trunk and at around the same height as the core framework. Consider the height of the branches – go for higher branches to allow for easy mowing underneath, or lower branches to make it easier for kids to climb and pick fruit.

Once you have selected the branches you want to keep, chop the trunk immediately above the highest branch – making the cut on an angle to allow moisture to run off. This might be drastic action for some trees, cutting the tree in half, but be assured, this is truly the best for the tree and its productivity.

Obviously these fruit trees, while related, have their own specific requirements too.
* Peaches and nectarines produce flowers on previous season's growth, so don't prune all the tips of the tree in winter as this is where the flowers and fruit will be borne in the coming season.
* Apricots mainly form fruit on two-year-old wood called spurs. These spurs will be productive for two or three years so don't remove them until they no longer produce fruit.
* Plums and plumcots are generally pruned into a vase shape, but the variety of plum will influence where the fruit is mainly produced.

European varieties (that's Prunus domestica – including damsons, greengages and prune varieties) form fruit mainly on semi-permanent spurs, with a small amount on the previous season's growth.

Conversely, Japanese varieties (Prunus salicina – including 'Elephant Heart', 'Fortune', 'Santa Rosa', 'Satsuma' and all plumcot varieties) fruit mainly on previous season's growth, with a light crop on older spurs.

So keep tabs on the variety to make sure that you don't inadvertently prune off the fruit-producing wood. Or if you are unsure of the variety, take a good look at the tree when it's in fruit – if the crop is mainly around the outer edges of the branches it's most likely a Japanese variety. If the fruit is mainly on short spurs coming off the main branches, then it's more likely a European type.


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Winter is the best time to prune deciduous fruit trees such as apples, pears and plums. These trees will fruit well whether or not they are pruned. But if the trees grow too tall the fruit is high and hard to reach, and when there is unproductive wood they don't tend to crop reliably. The aim of pruning fruit trees in the home garden is to assist the tree to produce reliable quality crops, with good size fruit on a manageable size tree.

This orchard in the Adelaide Hills was planted eight years ago. It has 25 trees including varieties of apples, pears and plums. These have survived with rainwater and no regular pruning.

But the trees now need attention. When pruning apples look for a central leader, and prune to make sure there are no competing branches.

Remove and clear the clutter within the tree. We want a nice, open framework and not too many competing branches, because it won't fruit properly. Remove any crossing and low branches.

Remember the shoot on the end of each tip is called a terminal and this won't ever fruit, so reduce that to just five or six buds. There's also a branch that comes off the side of the shoot at an angle of between 30 and 60 degrees and that's called a lateral. Leave the laterals intact because they will develop fruiting spurs for next season. And the little stubby bits of growth, which are fruiting spurs, will develop apples this season. Try to prune a quarter of an inch past a bud and at an angle. And remove any old fruit left hanging on the tree.

Pears fruit on the little flowering spurs, just like apples, but they also fruit on the tip of one year old laterals, and so when pruning reduce the terminal and leave these to produce fruit for next year.

When pruning plums it is important to train the tree into a vase shape. This means opening up the centre of the tree to let in the light. Look for six to nine nice, strong branches that can form that framework. When working with a Japanese plum look to see what interferes with the shape of the tree. The next priority is to reduce any tall, whippy growth. Plums fruit on fruiting spurs and one year old laterals, so it's important to remove any old or dead wood that's cluttering the tree to encourage new growth. The ideal is to end up with a strong terminal with lovely fruiting spurs ready for this season's plums.

Good orchard hygiene is also important so after finishing collect the prunings, and dispose of them and remove any old, rotten fruit because these could harbour disease.

In winter, it's tempting to stay inside where it's warm, but a little bit of effort pruning fruit trees will pay off.

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Dormant Pruning and Sprays for Fruit Trees

Late February through March is the ideal time to tackle annual pruning on fruit trees in Johnson County— as long as the wood isn’t frozen. Despite the old adage about the best time to prune being whenever your blade is sharp, heavy pruning of fruit and most deciduous trees is best saved for late winter before bud swell. It’s a uniquely perfect time to remove the wood damaged from the previous growing season (heavy fruit loads, diseases, insect damage) and winter storms (high winds and ice). Pruning speeds recovery and prevents further damage along with the following benefits:

  • Promotes a strong tree structure. Pruning is especially important when trees are young.
  • Allows light and air to penetrate the canopy. Sunlight is needed to produce fruit buds for the following year and for the fruit to color properly.
  • Control tree size. A small tree is easier to thin, harvest, and prune than a larger tree. Pest and disease control is also easier and more effective.

General Pruning Recommendations

  • Take out broken, damaged or diseased branches
  • If two branches form a narrow-angle, prune one out. Narrow angles are weak angles and tend to break during wind or ice storms.
  • Take out all suckers. Suckers are branches that grow straight up. They may originate from the trunk or from major branches
  • If two branches cross and rub against one another, one should be taken out.
  • Cut back or remove branches that are so low they interfere with harvest or pruning. If cutting back a branch, always cut back to another branch or a bud. Do not leave a stub.
  • Cut back branches to reduce the total size of the tree, if necessary.
  • Thin branches on the interior of the tree.

Follow the steps above in order but stop if you reach 30% of the tree. Click this link for more recommendations from K-State on pruning fruit trees including more specific instructions by species and tree maturity:

Dormant sprays - selecting resistant varieties along with good sanitation, pruning and fertilizing (done in early spring at bud break) should be the first line of defense against pest and disease. But if you have observed excessive damage in the past then certain chemical treatments (both natural and synthetically derived) can be an effective tool and some spray applications should be made before visible tree growth. Generally speaking, dormant oil sprays are used to control scale insects, aphids and mite eggs. Fungicides and bactericides applied during the dormant period are used to control diseases such as peach leaf curl and fire blight in apple.

Peach Leaf Curl

Apple Fire Blight

Have questions? The Garden Hotline is staffed by trained EMG volunteers and Extension staff who will assist you with questions.


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