How to Prune Fruit Trees

How to Prune Fruit Trees

You're ready to plant a fruit tree -- but how do you decide on the best pruning and training system? We've got easy answers for you. The University of California says pruning and training your fruit tree will improve it five ways:

  • Keep it a manageable size
  • Grow larger fruit
  • Ensure a yearly crop
  • Let light and air into the lower branches
  • Renew the vigor of the tree

The three most popular shapes for fruit trees are Central Leader, Vase (or Open Center), and Modified Central Leader. Certain kinds of fruit trees are most productive with certain shapes. Some kinds of fruit trees can be trained in almost any way. We'll show you the three shapes and list the trees that work best in that shape. In our video series, Tricia prunes in each of these shapes -- just follow the links below to watch the pertinent video.

For complete information about fruit trees, please consult our research-based videos and articles that are collected for you in Fruit Tree Central.

Central Leader training system

This diagram from the University of Missouri Extension shows how to prune in the Central Leader system from planting on through the third year. Watch our video to see Tricia prune and train a fruit tree with a Central Leader. A Central Leader shape is a conical, "Christmas tree" that is tall and tapered. The shape give the highest production, due to the light and air circulation, but it grows too tall to be practical for most home orchards. A home gardener can use this training system, though, when working with a dwarf tree. A successful shape for: Apple, pear, persimmon & pecan trees.

Vase or Open Center training system

The University of Missouri Extension illustrates pruning in the Vase (or Open Center) system from planting on through the third year. Tricia prunes and trains a Vase shaped fruit tree in our first video. The Vase is the simplest shape for beginning orchardists to prune, and allows plentiful sunlight in its open center. The drawbacks are weak branches that need props when bearing fruit, and heavy shade that can develop from leaves on the upper branches of the tree. A traditional shape for: Almond, apricot, cherry, fig, nectarine, olive, peach, pear, persimmon, plum & pomegranate trees.

Modified Central Leader training system

Modified Central Leader is the compromise shape. Here is a diagram of how to prune a tree according to this training system during its first four years from the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Watch our video to see how Tricia prunes and trains a fruit tree in this popular, all-purpose style. Combining the best features of both the Central Leader and Vase systems (sturdy trunk and central light) the Modified Central Leader is the default choice. Easier to harvest than a tall Central Leader tree, and with stronger branches than an Open tree, this is also the best choice for all fruit trees in the sunny Southwest. A good choice for: Almond, apple, apricot, cherry, fig, nectarine, olive, peach, pear, pecan, persimmon, plum, pluot, pomegranate & walnut trees.

What do these three training systems have in common? They all require sharp pruning tools! Here's our video on how to sharpen your tools this winter, and our article that explains how to keep petroleum off your tools and out of your organic garden. Do you need to replace any of your pruning tools? We test pruning tools in our own orchards and recommend this select group for you, in a variety of price ranges. In the Modified Central Leader video Tricia uses the new Corona ComfortGEL handled 3/4" Bypass Pruners and 30" Bypass Loppers. For more information on pruning check out Storey Country Wisdom booklet, Pruning Trees, Shrubs & Vines. Now, go order your fruit trees, and you'll know just how to prune and train them when they arrive at your door.

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Jane, It is really hard to advise on what to prune without seeing the tree. If you prune when it is in bloom, you may be removing some blooms and thus apples. You can prune in summer to control size or winter to prune for shape. It is best to not prune when the tree is blooming.


Hello, it is March here in So Cal and my apple tree is in blossom. There are many long leggy branches that just shot up. Can I safely cut those back?


Jade, I am glad the article helped. Proper pruning is very essential to the health of the tree and to the quality and size of your harvest.

Suzanne at

We have several apple trees in our yard and I am looking to know more about why I should prune them. It is good to know that pruning properly will help you maintain a tree that is a manageable size and grows larger fruit. I am also glad to know that with a tree who is properly trimmed, on can be ensured of a yearly crop. We will get the right equipment and use what we have learned in the article next time we prune. Thanks.

Jade Brunet

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