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Fruit Tree Care: Pre-Pruning

by Elmer on 02/15/2011
Bare-root Tree Roots

I reflect back to a younger man 20 years old with a 110-tree orchard and his difficulty in cutting off limbs in a newly planted orchard for the very first time. Today’s topic goes beyond that small orchard; it involves years of lining out and pre-pruning thousands of trees.

Pruning at planting time is probably the hardest thing for the home fruit grower to do; yet to get fruit trees off to the right start, experts will tell you it’s absolutely necessary! Many home growers fear that pruning will either hurt their tree or give it a substantial setback in size, delaying the first fruit crop. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not-pruning might enhance early bearing by a season, but the poor quality of fruit and the drain on the tree’s reserve system create more negatives than positives.

There are three basic reasons for pruning fruit trees: survival, stimulation and shaping. I’ll touch on two of these here.


If we could see beneath the ground, we would see activity that parallels what’s going on above. When you prune at planting time, you cut the tree back to its substantial wood, giving the root system less surface area to feed and much-needed time to establish in the soil. This is important because, during the digging and handling process prior to transplant, bare root trees lose some of their tiny feeder roots — these are the roots that absorb moisture and nutrients. If the top part of the tree is not pruned back to compensate for the lost roots, an imbalance may occur, causing the tree to put out weak, impeded growth.


By pre-pruning before planting, you give your trees the strength to survive transplantation. Pre-pruning will also stimulate stronger, more vigorous growth from the remaining buds on your tree. Usually after a single growing season, a pruned tree will equal or exceed a matching unpruned tree.

Commercial Manager Shawn with Young Trees

This first step of pre-pruning is one of the most important decisions in the life of your fruit tree.

At Stark Bro’s

During one of our staff meetings recently, we decided to prune all of our bare root fruit trees before we ship them. Making decisions like this can be difficult, especially when it adds cost to the company, not to mention the additional work.

Stark Bro’s used to provide this pruning service for a small fee; but as the grower, we take great pride in how our trees perform for our customers. So we’ve decided to take a proactive step forward and pre-prune, by hand, every bare root fruit tree we ship to you. It’s another way for us to invest in the success of your fruit-bearing endeavors, and we’re confident you will see the positive results when planting these pre-pruned trees.

– Elmer

Topics → Tips


  1. OK, I bought one dwarf apple tree late in the spring planting season last year at a discount and I didn’t know I should prune it. Should I prune it back now?

    • Meg permalink

      Donna, if your tree is still dormant, it’s the perfect time to prune. :) Make sure the cuts are at an angle, above a bud. Prune away any branches that are growing *in* towards the tree. If any branches are criss-crossing each other, prune one back right above a bud, so they don’t overlap.

  2. Jeff N permalink


    Based on what they wrote “We decided to prune all of our fruit trees before we ship them”, I think you can pass on it and wait until next fall.

    • Meg permalink

      Hi Jeff! We just started pre-pruning ALL bare root trees this spring. Last year we offered the service, but not everyone opted for it. This year, we’ve decided to go ahead & give every bare root tree a pruning before we ship them. :)

  3. alison k permalink

    so happy to see that you are pruning your trees! i was more afraid that i would prune too much or cut incorrectly so i didn’t prune the first year. we are so happy with our trees now! we will be adding more as we prepare beds for our trees in new areas. thank you for this service! it encourages me to buy from you instead of the local nursery. on THAT note: we have found that your ‘stick’ trees are outperforming more substantial trees that we purchased from local nurseries.

    • Meg permalink

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Alison! Pruning is definitely important to our business – if you ever had a chance to talk with Elmer in person, it would be hard to get him to stop espousing its virtues! ;)
      All trees go through that “stick/whip” stage, & transplanting at that age is actually more beneficial to the tree than waiting until it’s older/larger. So glad to hear that yours are doing well! :)

  4. Robert Nall permalink

    I purchased 3 peach trees 2 years ago,Bare root,
    all three bloomed (early) , we had two frost during the that time (late march)2012. all three trees set on fruit,the peaches are walnut size now.5-1-12,one of the trees lost most of it’s fruit during a windy thunderstorm,the other two are fine,the two with healthy fruit are redhaven and relliance,I don’t
    know the name of the tree that lost it’s could look up my purchase and maybe see what kind if tree it was.
    Robert Nall
    Quincy, Il

    • Hi Robert! I don’t see any record of a peach-tree purchase in our system. If you happened to pick them up at our retail location, this could be why. They’re a different department and keep their own records. :)

      Wind, hail, and other weather can certainly be a cause of fruit drop so that is not unusual at all! The damage may affect this year’s crop but it’s not permanent; next year should bring on more peaches. :)

  5. DON TAYLOR permalink

    i have purchased some fruit trees and vines from you over the past 3 years each one of these trees have grown to huge heights [some 12 to 15 feet cherries ,pears etc] most spiendly and no fruit i have fertz them 3 times a season grape vines with runners 8-10 long and running everwhere with no fruit the oposite with blueberry real small plants little growth but some fruit what should i do to reverse this trend this spring in zone 7-8 north carolina

    • Hi Don! Most fertilizers have a high nitrogen content and, to plants, this translates to vegetative growth (branches, leaves, etc.) and not necessarily fruit production. This may be why your plants, vines, and trees have grown “spindly”. You should consider pruning a third of the *new growth* each year (NOT a third of the whole tree, just new growth), while your trees are dormant. This will help to encourage sturdier branching instead. Proper pruning will help open up your trees and vines to sunlight, develop fruiting buds, and will avoid them becoming too vegetative — a situation where the plants will put their energy into supporting long leafy growth rather than try to set fruit.

      The time it takes to produce fruit depends on the type of fruit tree or plant you’re growing and their maturity. You can find out more about the individual estimated fruiting maturities in our article here: How many years until your tree bears fruit? For example, with grapes, it can take about 2-4 years before they begin to bear.

      Blueberries need a low soil pH (4.5-5.5) to be happy and healthy plants. They are unable to take in certain essential nutrients if their pH is too high, so you should test your soil to see if maybe the pH is not quite right for blueberry plants. We carry a Digital Plus Soil pH Meter for testing soil pH, but you can also find a soil test kit at your local garden center, or even contact your local county Extension service (find yours here: to have them perform a soil sample test for you for a small fee.

      I hope this information helps you get your plants and trees on the right track for fruit production in the next year or so, Don! :)

  6. David Tucker permalink

    Hi, I have a 2 year old Gold Nugget Dwarf Mandarin tree which is planted in a container. I live in Louisville, Kentucky in zone 6b where the winters get quite cold. I brought my tree inside for the Winter and have it under a grow light which I keep on about 12 hours a day. The tree was doing fine outside, but now some of the leaves are starting to fall. Is this normal or is the tree in trouble? Also some of the leaves are starting to turn yellow. What should I do? Also when should this tree begin bearing fruit? Thank you so much.

    • It sounds like your mandarin tree is acting like a typical citrus tree: finicky! It has been my experience that citrus trees drop their leaves at any sign of stress. This includes over-watering, or under-watering, as well as temperature changes like from being outside where it’s cooling off and then being brought indoors. The good news is, if it is environment-related stress, the tree will adjust and send out new growth to replace the leaves it’s dropping.

      The yellowing leaves can be signs of over-watering or a nutrient deficiency, and these things can also attribute to leaf drop.

      You really only need to water citrus trees when their soil* is dry to the touch an inch or two below the surface. Their soil, whether outdoors or in a container, needs to drain well. Oftentimes you have better drainage results with terracotta pots (or pots with a porous material that “breathes” well) for citrus trees.

      *When I say soil, it refers to the potting mix or medium you used to plant the tree, in case it isn’t actually “soil” (most potting mixes contain no soil)

      If your tree has been in the same soil for several years, you might consider refreshing it. Make sure to keep the roots intact, and carefully remove the tree from its pot. Shake loose most of the soil from around the roots. If the roots appear to be circling and tangled, you may take this opportunity to loosen the root-bound root ball. You can rinse the roots as well, with warm water, before replanting the tree. Then simply add a fresh mixture — soil, balanced fertilizer (note: some potting mixes contain fertilizers), etc. — to the pot (it can be the same pot) and replant your tree. This may cause it to drop leaves, but it will also encourage the tree to grow more, especially if the old soil had been depleted of nutrients.

      Citrus trees grown in pots tend to flower and fruit once their roots have met the inner edges and started to fill the container. Once they flower, especially if the tree is indoors at the time, you will need to manually collect pollen from one flower and apply it to the next. You can do this with a cotton swab or small fine paintbrush.

      I hope this information helps, David!

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