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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 a 45º angle, above an outward-facing bud. Prune away any branches that are growing *in* towards the center of the tree. If any branches are criss-crossing each other, prune one back right above a bud, so they don’t overlap. Also remove all damaged & diseased branches at any time!

  2. 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! :)

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