Therese Scales on formative pruning of bare-root fruit trees


Therese Scales is a horticulturalist at Nillumbik Nursery in Diamond Creek.

Why prune fruit trees? Shouldn’t we just let them grow to their natural form?

As simple as that sounds, it is not the way you get the best results from a fruit tree.

These rules generally apply to stone fruit, apples and pears:

  1. A strong framework of balanced branches needs to be developed to hold a good crop of fruit in years to come.
  2. Fewer branches hold larger fruit.
  3. A smaller tree makes it easy to pick fruit and to net the tree, as well as produce less excess fruit at risk of Queensland Fruit Fly.
  4. Opening the inside of the tree into a vase shape reduces the risk of pests and diseases developing.
  5. It allows sunshine in so fruit can ripen.
  6. Make sure your secateurs are clean and sharp. A clean cut will heal better than a tear. Remember to also clean your snips when you move between trees to prevent the spread of disease.
  7. Choose four higher outward growing branches (not crossing) to form the framework by which the fruit will produce fruiting spurs.
  8. Choose branches which are not directly opposite one another at the same point around the trunk to avoid splitting.
  9. Prune just above an outward facing bud to encourage outward growth. The cut needs to be angled away from the bud to protect it and allow water to run off. Be careful not to cut too close to the bud (to avoid damage) yet not too far from it (which may result in die back of the stem).
  10. The first prune should have about 60 percent of the growth removed. In subsequent years, you will not need to prune as severely. The formative pruning takes about four years. As well as removing branches which are crossing, diseased, dying or dead, the idea is to develop about eight branches around the trunk. So you want a lateral branch growing from each of the 4 branches you started with. In this time, remove any fruit before it gets too heavy for the small branches.
Do I really have to drop all fruit for 4 years?

In an ideal world … yes. It will encourage strong healthy branches and payoff in the long run.

If you just can’t wait… If you absolutely need to see some fruit from your labour… If you smile and nod when you’re told it all needs to go (only to get home and secretly enjoy your first fruit)… Significant fruit thinning is the bare minimum to allow for ongoing success.

Can you prune to contain the size?

Yes, but it isn’t a matter of doing it once and then you’re done. Rather, it will need to be done at least annually.

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