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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

35 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. Jon McQuilkin permalink

    This spring I planted a arrangement of fruit trees, Apple, Cherry, and several nut varieties, the nut trees seem to be doing fine but the apple trees and cherry have recently started loosing leaves they are shriveling up. I am concerned about there well being. What is causing this and can it be cured.

    • There are several things that can cause fruit tree leaves to shrivel and drop, like pests, disease, and water-stress.

      If the trees’ leaves are riddled with holes (“skeletonized”) as well as shriveled, it is likely that a pest like the Japanese beetle is causing the damage. If you notice that the leaves are rolled up, rather than shriveling on their own, it may be a pest like aphids affecting your trees. These, and other, pests can be controlled with a pesticide (like neem oil).

      If you notice any discoloration in the leaves, this may give you more of an idea of what’s happening. Circular spots, yellow to orange to brown, on the leaves are usually a sign of a fungal disease, which can be controlled with a fungicide spray intended for use on apple and cherry trees (like this garden disease control). Powdery white or grey mildews can be controlled with a fungicide as well. If you notice the apple tree has burnt-looking leaves and branch tips that also become shriveled, your issue in the apple tree may be fire blight (this doesn’t affect cherry trees). Fire blight is a bit more difficult to manage, since it is a bacterial disease rather than a fungal disease. Read more about controlling fire blight here.

      If you are fertilizing too much or spraying when it is too hot out, it may cause leaves to shrivel and fall. You should be finished with fertilizing for this year, since it’s after July. You can read more about when to stop fertilizing and why here. Be sure that if you’re spraying, you spray carefully and according to the label, so as not to injure your trees’ leaves — mix at the correct ratio (per the label) for your trees and avoid spraying when temperatures are above the upper 80s and 90s.

      If you notice that the leaves are yellow, this can be a sign of nutrient deficiency and/or water stress. Trees don’t need additional water if you are receiving adequate rainfall during the week. Roots can become waterlogged if the soil is not well drained, especially if it rains a lot and floods where the trees are planted, and this will create an environment for disease issues later on. If you are receiving no rain, you shouldn’t need to water with more than a gallon or so every 5-7 days for new trees — unless your location is experiencing severe drought; drip irrigation or regular watering when it is dry will help.

      I hope any of these suggestions hits the nail on the head for what may be going on with your trees, Jon! If you need further assistance, our customer support team may be able to help. If you have any photos, please send them to us at info@starkbros.com and contact us via email or give us a call at 800.325.4180. You can also seek advice from your local county cooperative extension — these experts are local to your area and may be able to provide more specific advice for you there.

  9. 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.

  10. rich horvath permalink

    bought 2 dwarf apple trees from you, planted them mothers day
    and seemed to be doing ok,
    the other day in middle of hot day i came home to find that somthing
    had eaten and broke most of the young sprouts of the trees the one
    just about all in the middle the other not as bad, i had a 16 inch fence
    around them, i don’t have that many deer around but did see a groundhog
    near.
    my question is will they grow new sprouts or anything i can do to get them
    started again?
    thank you
    rich h.

    • I’m curious what caused the damage in the middle of your trees if they were fenced from deer. Assuming it wasn’t deer (deer saliva can sometimes stunt the development of new growth), your trees should still send out new growth. There is still enough time even in this growing season for your apple trees to grow, especially if you’re in an area that gets a decent amount of rain. Don’t be tempted to use fertilizer, since it’s July now, and growth that the fertilizer forces later in the year is susceptible to winter injury. If you don’t see much growth before things start cooling down for fall, don’t despair; the trees would lose their leaves for winter anyway. You’ll see their new growth next spring, in this case. :)

      • rich horvath permalink

        the fence at that time was only 16
        inches hi to stop rabbits, i now put
        up a higher one
        i seen a ground hog close to the
        tree area & wonder if he bent the tree & ate the new branches, don’t
        know if they eat those or not.

        • Jim permalink

          Had similar problems with ground hogs. They bent over apple trees 3-4 feet in height and devoured all the new shoots and leaves. Then in late fall, they chewed off the bark around the bottom foot of the trees. Replanted the next spring. Put in metal fence and trapped 3 of 4? so far. they moved to maple tree 3 feet high, bent it over and ate all the top new leaves. just need to get that last one….

  11. petra miller permalink

    Dear Stark Bros.
    About seven years ago I bought a cherry tree from you that is supposed to produce two types of cherries. However, the tree only bore two cherries last year and three cherries this year, yellow ones. I am thinking about cutting it down. By now there ought to be some fruit.

    • Hi Petra.

      Is there another cherry tree around that would be pollinating yours? Because the yellow variety is not self-pollinating and therefore requires another compatible variety to bloom for cross-pollination and fruit development to take place. If there isn’t another cherry tree around, then both varieties of your 2-N-1 tree are, in fact, blooming, so bees and other beneficials need to be present to help carry that pollen from flower to flower. If you’re not seeing any bees, butterflies, etc., around your tree at bloom time, then that is a problem.

      Assuming you have bees and other beneficials around, keep in mind that sweet cherry trees can take up to 7 years before they begin fruiting. I’m inclined to think the small handful of cherries you’ve received so far are just the beginning of your cherry tree’s fruiting maturity.

      Most locations have had 2 years of harsh winters in recent past, so that may be the reason why the first crops were so small. Cold temperatures and frost can zap the fruit buds and blossoms, reducing the possibility for fruit that year. Before cutting your tree down, it will be more helpful to ensure that the tree’s needs are being met for fruit production.

      Now, the 2-N-1 fruit trees have two varieties grafted to one tree. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean they will grow at the same rate, and occasionally one variety tries to be “dominant” over the other. The best way to combat this is to keep them pruned and balanced with one another.

      Fruit production can be affected by things you can’t really control, like the maturity of the tree (just needs time), the environment, and the weather, but it can also be affected by things you do have control over, like the tree’s location (a good, well-drained, sunny spot), pollination, and pruning. If native bees aren’t coming around to pollinate your trees when they are blooming, you can do things like plant bee-attracting flowers, hang mason bee nests, and certainly don’t spray pesticides while your trees are blooming. Pruning is essential to keeping fruit trees open to air circulation and light; two things that are important to the healthy growth of a tree. Light, especially, is important to the development of fruit buds, so if your tree has a lot of leafy vegetative growth that is left unmanaged, it may be blocking light that is necessary to enable fruit production.

      Keep these things in mind and be sure to keep on top of the pruning this year — making sure you don’t completely remove one of your 2 grafted cherry varieties in the process — and see how your cherry tree bears next year. If the winter and spring aren’t harsh and harmful, I’d expect a more impressive fruit crop!

  12. Denise permalink

    This year I bought a 4-in-1 apple tree, 2-in-1 pear tree, and a Stanley plum tree from Stark. I have never planted bare root trees before, but they are doing wonderfully! I have to say when planting the plum it felt a bit like planting a stick, but it has done very well to my surprise! They all are growing so well I really feel there may be need for ‘summer pruning’. I looked up how to prune grafted trees on the internet and found some conflicting information. Before I follow that advice and perhaps harm the tress, I felt I should contact the grower for information. Can you please provide some helpful advice to give me courage to prune these beauties?

    • Pruning information will always vary slightly, because (unless you are practicing the art of bonsai) trees are not that particular about how you prune. This means you can stick to the basics, without worrying about being too exact.

      Summer (light maintenance):
      • Tip back long, weak growth to encourage sturdier limbs (mostly just in peach, nectarine, and Japanese plum trees*)
      • Remove damaged, dead, diseased limbs
      • Remove tree suckers and watersprouts

      *Your Stanley plum tree is a European plum variety, so it may not need summer pinching to remove long weak limbs. With the exception of removing injured limbs, tree suckers, and watersprouts whenever you find them, most of your pruning should happen in winter.

      Winter (heavy maintenance):
      • Remove damaged, dead, diseased limbs
      • Remove limbs growing at a weak angle (too narrow/wide)
      • Remove limbs that grow in toward the center of the tree
      • Remove limbs that cross over one another and rub
      • Remove tree suckers and watersprouts
      • Prune back NEW GROWTH (from the current year) by a third. New growth translates to branches that are often a different color from the older growth on the tree. It is often lighter, and more flexible as well. If your limb has 3 inches of new growth, prune off 1 inch.

      It gets a little tricky when pruning multi-grafted fruit trees like the 4-on-1 apple tree and the 2-N-1 Pear tree, but only because you need to ensure that the different varieties stay in balance with one another. You may notice that one variety is more vigorous and tries to “dominate” the tree. Keep it pruned so that it stays in balance with the less vigorous variety. Always be sure not to completely prune off one of your grafted limbs either, or you will lose that variety.

      I hope this helps. If you are still a little confused, or if you’re more of a visual learner, I’d recommend a resource like our Pruning Made Easy book. I reference that book pretty often myself!

      We also have some basic videos that demonstrate pruning on our YouTube channel here: Growing with Stark Bro’s

  13. William Daniel permalink

    Two cherry trees – one new this year and one last year suffered failure. Both have small feathery leaves coming out of normal leaf position. I trimmed branches to try to reduce energy used on excess branches. Some appeared to be dead when I cut them off. Should I cut them all off as feathery leaves are coming from main stalk?
    I lost a three year old cherry tree this winter right next to them. Rough winter. Can it be the wood chip mulch ( fresh tree mulch spread three foot around the base and about two inches thick)? It is in my orchard of apple pear peach and plum trees. All are doing fine. I have wild cherry trees (50 ft tall) across the field in hedge row between fields.
    No disease in them. What is the replacement policy of this years cherry tree?
    Bill Daniel

    • It’s likely not the wood chip mulch causing trouble, especially since the rest of your trees are doing fine. I’d recommend cutting off any dead branches as you find them. If there are no viable buds on the remaining branches, you may want to remove them and allow the feathered growth from the main trunk develop into new branches.

      If your soil is heavy (like clay), or if your location had received a lot of snow and then a lot of rain this spring, and the planting site was slow to drain off excess water, that is a more likely candidate for what’s going on with your young cherry trees. It sounds like something at the root level. Cherry trees are more sensitive to water-logged roots and suffer stress as a result, especially while they are young and trying to get established. I wouldn’t be surprised if the harsh winter this year and the long winter last year were to blame for your cherry tree troubles.

      You may want to try adding a thicker layer of mulch in the winter for more insulation for the roots if it looks like it’s going to be another cold one. Be sure not to have the mulch right up against the trunks, and probably use tree guards to protect your young trees’ trunks (if you’re not already). This helps to avoid critters chewing and girdling the bark in the winter/early spring before their other food sources re-emerge.

      Our limited (1-year) warranty is called our ‘Promise of Satisfaction’, and you can always find it here for your convenience: http://www.starkbros.com/our-company/our-promise-of-satisfaction — our customer support team (800.325.4180) will be able to work with you regarding replacements. I hope this all helps!

  14. Cheri Hollis permalink

    I have several peach trees that appear to be dead! They are in Indiana and the winter was extremely harsh for them. A few leaves tried to grow in the spring but wilted and died. Is there any way it can tell if they are indeed dead? They will be 5 yrs old and I had a wonderful crop last year…

    • There is a way to tell if your trees are living or not. We call it the “scratch test” and you can find out how to do one here: http://209.184.23.10/blog/how-to-do-a-scratch-test/

      Your peach trees sound just like mine this spring, Cheri. This would be my two peach trees’ fourth spring. They bloomed and looked great in March, but I think frequent cold snaps did them in. They slowly lost their leaves and ultimately didn’t survive as a result of the harsh winter/spring. :(

      I hope yours manage to pull through!

  15. 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. :)

  16. 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. :)

  17. Mark permalink

    This past winter, my 3 yr old peach trees came under attack by some small creature. They chewed on the lower limbs that are about 1 foot off the ground which are the main limbs going up. I was hopeful that they would repair themselves. Over the summer I noticed that they are seeping sticky residue from those spots. What should my course of action be?

    • Hi Mark — Unfortunately, I’m not sure how big the branches are or how severe the damage was to them, so I’ll provide a few options for you.

      If it is possible to prune the limbs back behind the damage (to healthy tissue), I would recommend you do that. Small areas of damage should heal over on their own in time, but larger areas could become stressful for the tree, and pests or disease might take advantage of the damaged site before it can heal properly.

      If the damaged limbs are important to the branch structure of the tree, you might consider cleaning the areas that are leaking sap instead. You can remove the excess sap and rinse the wound well with water to try to clean it up a bit. If you notice any holes in the branches, that could be a sign that borers may have found their way into the branch — this can result in sap leakage as well as the tree tries to force them out. You will need to try to dig the borers out (with something like sturdy wire) before continuing. This may improve the ability of your tree to heal itself on its own.

      If you don’t find signs of borers, there are things like tree wound dressings that can be used to protectively cover the spots that are not healing over after the wounded area has been properly cleaned.

      If you notice sunken spots or discolored/diseased tissue around the wounds, your tree might have contracted a fungal/bacterial issue in that wounded area that needs to be treated before it can heal. You would need to identify the issue before trying to treat it with a spray. Your local county extension may already have resources online that provide disease identification for things common to your area. Pruning the damage and disease away (as well as treating the disease) may be your best option here. You wouldn’t want to use tree wound dressings in this case, for fear of sealing the wound with the disease inside.

      I hope this helps!

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