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Fruit Tree Care: Summer Pruning

by Stark Bro's on 07/09/2014
Summer Pruning a Plum Tree

Despite being considered “off-season pruning”, summer pruning of fruit trees has its place in the home orchard. For example, summer pruning may be necessary to repair damaged tree limbs. If a branch is broken by the wind or by a heavy load of fruit, then prune back the ragged edges, making a smooth cut that leaves no stubby stump.

Summer pruning, or pinching, of tender new branches is also recommended to encourage huskier growth in vigorously vegetative trees. This discourages long, weak, “leggy” growth from flourishing. Summer pinching helps manage the tree’s overall size as well, which is especially handy if your dwarf fruit trees tend to be more on the robust side.

There are many reasons to consider summer pruning of fruit trees, but the ultimate purpose remains the same: detecting what needs correcting.

When to consider summer pruning:

July & early August. The active growing season, before things slow down in fall. This also takes into consideration cases where a harsh winter and spring may delay new growth.

Plum Tree Needs Summer PruningFruit trees commonly considered for summer pruning*:

*These fruit trees tend to grow vigorously, putting energy into lots of vegetative growth. They may reach their maximum height sooner than other fruit trees, but at the expense of sturdy, stocky limbs. They may also develop light and airflow issues that pruning addresses.

Summer Pruning: Pinching ExampleGoals of summer pruning:

Remove current problems. Dead, damaged, diseased limbs should be removed before they become bigger stress factors for your tree. Remove crossing/rubbing limbs, and limbs that grow inward toward the tree’s center.

Create a sturdy structure. As mentioned earlier, long, weak growth should be pinched back. Hand pinch, or prune, 3 inches (or so) off the end of each soft, leafy shoot. Repeat in late summer if side shoots grow rapidly out.

Benefits to summer pruning of fruit trees:

  • Enhances light exposure. In young fruit trees, light improves the development of fruiting wood. In mature fruit-bearing trees, light improves fruit size/quality. In fruit trees of all ages, proper light and air circulation reduce the risk of fungal disease.
  • Encourages sturdier branch development. Through pruning, your tree will be left with stockier, sturdier growth that can better support fruit in future seasons.
  • Provides opportunity to check on tree status. Find and address pests/disease issues, ideally before they are bigger problems. Spread tree limbs if they are growing too vertically. Remove any suckers and watersprouts that may have appeared.

Summer Pinching: Before Pruning Cut Summer Pinching: After Pruning Cut

Things to avoid when summer pruning:

Avoid pruning if rain is in the immediate forecast. Rain can stir up disease elements, like fungal spores, that may take advantage of fresh pruning cuts. Wait for the weather to be more cooperative.

Avoid heavy pruning in summer. Summer pruning should merely maintain the structure which you define with heavier pruning in winter/early spring. Heavy pruning should always be saved for when fruit trees are dormant and less prone to stress.

Avoid pruning too late. It may seem backward, but pruning actually encourages growth. If this growth is encouraged too late in the season, it could be at risk of winter injury. If you miss your “summer pruning window”, just wait to prune in the winter/early spring instead. Note: you do not need to wait to remove damaged, dead, or diseased limbs, or suckers and watersprouts. These should be removed as soon as possible.

With these things in mind, and pruners in hand, you are ready for summer pruning. Let us know how it goes! :)

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Topics → Fruit Tree Care, Tips

21 Comments

  1. Janice permalink

    #1] I have a peach tree that is being pulled out by a much larger tree that is falling. I would like to move it as the huge tree will be there for a while. I saw about 5 peaches on the poor thing this year. She looks healthy enough to move. Should I do it now? and prune at the same time? The tree is in Atlantic City NJ.
    #2]I wanted to get a Meader Persimmon for the last couple of years. They seem to be off the market now, why?
    #3] When is the correct time to prune a lilac. If I don’t touch them they bloom beautifully, but they are out-of-control. If I prune to keep them at the height I like…I don’t get any blooms.

    • Hi Janice!

      #1: You can move the peach tree now, especially if it isn’t able to grow straight or if the larger tree’s weight is causing damage. Usually, it is not recommended that you move a tree during the growing season, especially if it has fruit on it. This is because it will have to reestablish itself in a new spot during the growing season, and that can cause stress. But, if you can’t wait for the tree to go dormant, as long as you move as much of the root system as possible — and keep it intact (don’t break off a lot of the fine, hairlike feeder roots) — your tree will have an easier time establishing in its new location. It may drop the peaches it currently has on, but that’s just the tree’s response to stress. Sustaining fruit takes a lot of energy, so it may be better overall to remove the fruit if you move the tree.

      #2: We don’t offer the Meader Persimmon variety; Miller Nurseries used to carry it, but when they went out of business, we didn’t continue offering that particular variety. You should be able to find it at other great online resources like Jung Seed or Edible Landscaping.

      #3: The timing for pruning depends on the status (age, growth, etc.) of your current lilac plant. Since that can vary, I welcome you to check out one of my favorite resources for pruning lilacs here. You might want to bookmark that page so you can refer back to it whenever you need! :)

  2. Bernard permalink

    I purchased 4 bare root trees this spring, two apple and two plum. I planted them with care and have been careful about watering and mulching. The trees took off very well, but there are leaves growing continuously up their entire lengths. Should I pinch off most of them?

    Also I have had trouble keeping the Japanese beetles off them. Any suggestions?

    Thanks.

    • If you notice that the trees have new leaves sprouting from their trunks, this is normal. If the new sprouts are coming from 18 inches or lower down the trunk, you should consider removing this young growth. In most cases, fruit trees don’t need branches developing that close to the ground. If your trees are growing really long skinny branches, you can pinch those back as well (pinching or pruning off about 3 inches from the tips of the branches should do it).

      Japanese beetles are rampant this year, it seems. I flick them whenever I find them on my plum and apple trees (they seem to prefer plum leaves for some reason!). There are some different methods for controlling Japanese beetles which you can find here:
      http://insects.about.com/od/insectpests/a/control-japanese-beetles.htm

      If you are interested in a spray for this pest, you can try one of these:
      Total Pest Control
      • Sevin Bug Killer

      Or try putting bug nets over your trees that the Japanese beetles and certain other pests are too big to fit through:
      • Big Bug Netting

      Alternately, you may want to contact your local county cooperative extension to see what they recommend using to control Japanese beetles in your area. I hope this helps!

  3. John Sours permalink

    Our neighbor has a large apple tree that bears excellent fruit, but only every other year.
    What varieties share this biennial production?

    John

    • Bill Anderson permalink

      This topic was addressed to some degree in an earlier blog post. Overbearing in one year will yield little or no fruit the next year. I have a 30 year old Starkspur Mac that yields a bumper crop every other year. In the bearing years it sheds about 50% of the formed fruit when at the dime or quarter size, still leaving a bumper crop. Truly a beautiful tree in blossom, it has grown to a perfect shape with little pruning. It looks like an inverted umbrella with branches that are 40 to 50 feet tall. Each branch is loaded with 1 to 2 inch spurs that bear the fruit. The Stark blog post recommends to thin fruit in the big crop seasons or to prune enough in the off season to limit fruit production the following year, encouraging fruit bearing every year. I haven’t tried that because the tree is tall and too “perfect” in shape to disturb. This is my “off year”. I have about 2 dozen apples, rather than 10 times that amount.

    • Productive varieties (like Golden Delicious and spur-type apple trees) are prone to overbearing when they reach a fruit-bearing age and, especially when they are young, they tend to take the next year off to recover energy reserves before fruiting again. This can be remedied by thinning the flowers or young fruit during the spring.

      Read more about the benefits of thinning fruit trees here.

  4. Mauldin Carter permalink

    Very informative. Certainly worth sharing with all gardener: advanced or beginner.

  5. Laura Major permalink

    I have 12 old, large apple trees, all of which bear heavily every other year. The local arborists have told me that this is the result of not thinning the apples in the years they yield. The trees are just exhausted and require a year to renew their strength.

  6. Jerry Standeford permalink

    We have some fruit trees that were damaged by frost. Should I remove the damaged limbs ?

    • Generally, you should remove any damaged, diseased, or dead limbs whenever you find them, since the tree doesn’t benefit from supporting the “dead weight”; however, you don’t necessarily have to remove the entire limb if only part of it is injured. In this case, just prune the affected limbs back to healthy tissue.

  7. Robert Gleim permalink

    All apple trees have a tendency for bi-annual bearing if they are not thinned properly. Apple trees should be thinned approximately four weeks after setting fruit. Thin to no more than one to two fruit per cluster, depending on the total fruit set and growing conditions. Retain the largest fruit whenever possible. When the crop is heavy, fruit should be spaced no less than 6 to 8 inches apart.

    With proper thinning, the tree should produce apples each year. Please keep in mind that thinning too late in the season will have no effect. Apple trees set their fruiting buds early in the summer for the next season.

  8. Michael permalink

    Although some trees are prone than others to alternate bearing, proper thinning can help alleviate the problem. It seems that when a tree sets a lot of fruit and brings those fruit to maturity, it is less inclined to produce a good crop the following year. There are specific hormones involved in this phenomenon, but to make it simple: thin the crop every year to mitigate the effects of alternate bearing.

  9. Patrick S permalink

    Quick question on pruning/disease control. This year, like last, had unusually heavy rainfall in VA since the spring. That has caused my several dozen fruit trees to grow very vigorously and have issues with water-friendly disease like Cedar Apple rust in apples and brown rot in stone fruits. In fact, I lost most of the yield to these two diseases. Japanese beetles were also exceptionally heavy (but thankfully no brown stinkbugs -think the winter did them in). I do spray, but between the frequent rains and a knee issue, was not as consistent this spring as I had hoped to be. Anyway, to my question, should I remove the deformed/shriveled apples and peaches, or leave them alone to decompose (will try to be more consistent spraying for next season)?

    • Good question Patrick — you should remove any and all infected leaves and fruit (and prune away diseased branches) as soon as you find them. Leaving them will only help to spread pests and disease; if not this season, things like fungal spores may overwinter and re-infect your trees next season. So remove and destroy (don’t try to compost) the deformed/shriveled fruit and any diseased debris to keep your site healthy as possible. :)

  10. Yessenia permalink

    I have a plum tree from your company, and I have to say that this year, we got to taste them and were so good and sweet and delicious!! Having said that, I’m assuming this article also applies to my methley plum tree. Question, Am I supposed to get fruit once a year? :( they were so yummy.

    • I’m sorry to say that most fruit trees only bloom and bear fruit once per year! If a fruit tree has an unusual tendency to yield fruit more than once in a given year, while most fruit trees don’t, they are described as “everbearing”.

      Some fruit trees, like fig trees, can fruit twice in places with long, warm growing seasons. Citrus trees can bloom again while they still have fruit ripening on them. Unfortunately, Methley plum is one of those fruit trees that blooms once in the spring and fruits once in the summer before resting in the fall and winter to do it all again the next year. :)

  11. Bob permalink

    Should I wait til spring to plant apple trees. Have purchased several different varieties in the past and always planted in April.

    • If you’ve always planted in spring, in April, and have had success doing so, there’s no reason not to continue that tradition. If you were interested in planting in fall instead, keep in mind that we ship bare-root trees, which are already dormant when they arrive to you. This means that they won’t have leaves and concerns about a chance snowfall won’t be a problem for them. As long as the soil isn’t already frozen in your area in a typical November, you can plant apple trees in the fall as well!

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