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Pruning Peach Trees

Pruning is a very important part of proper peach tree care and maintenance; however, many people think the task overwhelming or too complicated. It doesn’t have to be! Keep these things in mind:

  • Have confidence in knowing that not everyone will prune the exact same way — including the experts.
  • There are three main reasons you should prune your peach tree: its survival, stimulation, and shaping. In the best interest of your tree, it is preferable to do some pruning versus no pruning.
  • If a peach tree is left unpruned, it may not become fruitful, it will not grow as well, and — in some cases — it may not be encouraged to grow at all.

NOTE: This is part 8 in a series of 11 articles. For a complete background on how to grow peach trees, we recommend starting from the beginning.

Survival

When your peach tree is dug up from our fields to be shipped to you (and any time a tree is transplanted) the root ball loses many of its fine feeder roots. These hairlike, delicate roots are important to the process of absorbing moisture and nutrients in the soil. Pruning, in this instance, helps balance the top growth of your tree with the root system, giving the roots time to re-establish in your yard to support existing top growth and new growth.

When your bare-root peach tree arrives from Stark Bro’s, our professionals have already pre-pruned your tree for you. Because of this, you do not need to prune them again at planting time. The only pruning necessary at planting time would be to remove any broken or damaged branches and roots.

Plan to prune your peach trees every year during their dormant season. In Zone 6 and north, you should wait until late winter. A good reference book (we recommend Pruning Made Easy), is invaluable for providing additional visuals and in-depth answers to questions you may have about pruning.

Stimulation

In addition to the survival benefits, pruning a peach tree stimulates stronger, more vigorous growth from the remaining buds. After a single growing season, a peach tree you prune will be bigger, and have stronger branching than a similar unpruned tree.

Shape and Structure

Equally as important to the benefits above, your peach tree needs to be pruned to provide a strongly structured shape. The natural shape a peach tree takes on is not always the best for its maximum fruit production. Stark Bro’s peach trees are pruned in the nursery row for proper shaping to get you started, but corrective pruning must continue at home. Annual pruning is more critical for peaches (and nectarines) than for any other fruit tree type.

Always prune peach trees to an “Open Center” shape. An open-center structure keeps the tree’s canopy open to light, which is necessary for the development of good fruit and helps prevent brown rot, a notorious enemy of peach trees.

Pruning Tips

  • First dormant season (a year after you plant the tree): Remove the central leader and direct the tree growth toward three or four strong scaffolds. Choose branches that are evenly distributed around the trunk. Maintain about 6 inches of height between the scaffold branches, keeping the lowest branch at least 18 inches from the ground. Leave some small branches on the lower trunk to encourage trunk strength. Prune back scaffold branches to one-third of their length.
  • Second dormant season: Prune away fast-growing new shoots but leave twig growth, which will be the fruit-bearing wood (on most peach trees). Choose and encourage additional scaffolds, if needed.
  • Third dormant season: Prune off any broken limbs or crossing branches, but don’t do any more major pruning until the tree has produced a good-sized crop.
  • Mature-tree pruning: Once the basic shape of your peach tree has been established, make your pruning decisions in line with which branches are bearing fruit. Most trees produce fruit on the previous year’s long stems and on short branches (spurs), each of which will bear fruit for several years. Each year, cut out a portion of the older fruiting wood to keep rejuvenating the tree. Prune back each of last year’s stems to half its length.

Pruning angles

Narrow, V-shape crotch angles in the limbs are an open invitation to disastrous splitting later on, particularly when your peach tree is supporting a large fruit crop. For your tree’s branches, choose wide 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock angles.

Pruning to a bud

Make sharp, clean cuts close enough (about ¼-inch away from the next outward-pointing bud) so you won’t leave a clumsy stub that’s hard to heal over. Stay far enough above the bud so it won’t die back. Slant the cuts and the new growth will develop beautifully.

Every branch has buds pointed in various directions. Because you want vigorous new growth to spread out and away from the center of the tree, make your cut above a bud that’s aimed outward. These are usually located on the underside of the branch. This helps your peach tree take on a more spreading shape, keeping it open to light and air circulation.

Pruning Whips (Unbranched Trees)

Unbranched peach trees are ideal if you want more control over which branches are allowed to develop — as you might in certain artful pruning styles like espalier. Prune whips back to 28- to 36-inches above the ground at planting time. After the new branches have grown 3- to 5-inches in length, select a shoot to become the leader and the rest become the tree’s scaffold limbs.

Off-season Pruning

Sometimes pruning needs to be done even when the season isn’t ideal. If a branch is broken by the wind or by a heavy load of fruit, emergency treatment is necessary. When taking action due to injury, prune to clean up any ragged edges; making a flush cut that leaves no stub.

It does not benefit the peach tree to wait until dormancy to prune damaged, dead, or diseased limbs or to remove unwanted growth like suckers and watersprouts. These should all be completely removed as soon as you see them.

Fruit-Thinning

There are several good reasons to thin fruit:

  • To reduce limb breakage
  • Increase the size of the remaining fruit
  • Improve fruit color and quality
  • Stimulate floral initiation for next year’s crop

Home gardeners can effectively thin peach trees by hand. During May and June (in most areas, many peach trees will start to drop or abort underripe fruit. This is a natural process that allows the tree to mature the remaining crop load. If not corrected through thinning, peach trees may bear biennially (fruits only every other year) or bear heavily one year, then bear a comparatively light crop the next year. Thinning may seem counterproductive in theory, but it really is a benefit to your peach harvest in the long run.

The best time to thin peach trees is within 20 to 40 days of full bloom. Thin so that each remaining peach is spaced 6 to 8 inches apart on the branch. In clusters, leave the king bloom (the center bloom in the cluster of five flowers) as it will develop into the largest fruit. On spur-type peach varieties, many fruit spurs grow along a branch and will need to be thinned out to encourage bigger and better fruit on what remains. All of these tasks promote the improved bearing and fruit quality of your peach tree — you’ll be pleased with the results!

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