Food ForestsTrees

Winter Pruning Techniques: Spur-Bearing Fruit Trees

I’ve always been a bit confused about proper pruning techniques. You’ve got your winter pruning for spur-bearing fruit trees, winter pruning for tip-bearing fruit trees and summer pruning to keep your trees at a manageable height.

There are some people like Sepp Holzer and Masanobu Fukuoka that even advocate against pruning at all, although they both specify that your unpruned fruit trees need to be propagated and managed in a certain way from the start.

With that said, I’ve seen some old, overgrown and unproductive fruit trees brought back to production with just a few years of good pruning management.

So, where to start?

There are a few things that you need to know before diving in, pruning secateurs in hand. First and foremost, does your fruit tree produce on spurs or is it tip-bearing?

It’s also important to understand how the fruit tree has been shaped in its first few years. Some fruit trees (like the plum in the video) lend themselves to a vase shape with four main branches pointing off in opposite directions. These branches are called the framework. Lateral branches grow from the framework, and, in the case of the plum tree, send out fruiting spurs that can produce fruit for years to come.

In the video Justin Calverley from Sensory Gardens demonstrates his technique for winter pruning of spur-bearing, deciduous fruit trees.

Start with the Three Ds:

  1. Dead
  2. Diseased
  3. Damaged

Then, when that is out of the way, he prunes back most of the one-year-old growth that wouldn’t be productive and thinned out any overcrowded areas.

Lastly he recommends pruning back the productive laterals to within 30cm of the framework branches. This keeps the tree nice and compact and greatly reduces any issues of overbearing fruit trees that can get damaged in windy conditions. It also activates some of the dormant buds to produce spurs on the framework of the tree.

How winter pruning helps

Winter pruning of deciduous fruit trees can help with a number of different things.

  1. You can keep your fruit within arms reach to avoid carrying around a ladder.
  2. It is much easier to net your trees against hungry birds
  3. Winter pruning stimulates new growth

I’ve read of a handful of situations where pruning might not be the best way forward. In the outer zones of a Permaculture design, or if you are trying to minimise your labour and still get a harvest, then pruning might be best avoided. From my perspective a well-formed and pruned fruit tree is appealing and the benefits of learning how and when to prune is something I look forward to learning!


  1. Excellent. I get a bit nervous with my young fruit trees but have learned that pruning is very important. I did a major prune on a 4 year old Queen Ann Cherry. My neighbors thought I was crazy but the tree has gotten very happy and the cherries it put out were wonderful.

  2. I can’t help but think of the totally neglected apple tree of many years in age on my friends property that produces a bounty of very sweet tasting apples each season. With the dozen or so trees that I planted last spring I am more inclined not to prune. Liz Bastion, lives not far from me and it does not look to me like she has pruned her fruiting trees as there are plenty of leading stems to be seen. All it does is produce a more natural shape, with the tree reaching to the sky, when the leaders are left there. I find it more attractive to the eye than a tree pruned to a vase shape.

    1. yup, definitely there’s something to the unpruned fruit tree, I agree totally. In australia we have huge issues with birds getting most of the fruit (they take a little nibble out of each unripe piece and leave the rest!) Netting is a common practice here so keeping the trees small and productive helps with that.

  3. So many theories I get confused! At the basic fruit tree pruning courses I attended I was told never to cut branches partially: or you cut it all (at the intersection with the trunk or with another branch) or you leave it on. But maybe I missed something.

    1. Same here. It was good to hear Justin mentioning that it was his technique and there are dozens of different approaches. Your pruning techniques will change from one fruit tree to another and from site to site too. I guess it also depends on your goals and aesthetics too.

  4. Fukuoka does not advocate against pruning. He clearly talks about shaping fruit trees in their early years so as to minimize pruning in later years. He says Even slight training of the branches or pruning when the tree is young has an enormous effect on the later growth and shape. When left to grow naturally from the start, little pruning will be needed later on, but if the natural shape of the tree is altered, a great deal of intricate pruning becomes necessary. Training the branches at the start into a shape close to the natural form of the tree will make the pruning shears unnecessary. He goes on to say The natural forms of young grapevines and persimmon, pear, and apple trees have low branch, leaf, and fruit densities, and thus produce small yields. This can be resolved by discreet pruning to increase the density of fruit and branch formation. And then Enabling the seedling to put out a vigorous, upright leader is the key to successfully achieving a natural form. The grower must observe where and at what angle primary and secondary scaffold branches emerge, and remove any unnatural branches. Normally, after five or six years, when the saplings have reached six to ten feet in height, there should be perhaps five or six secondary scaffold branches extending out in a spiral pattern at intervals of about six to twelve inches such that the sixth secondary scaffold branch overlaps vertically with the first. Primary scaffold branches should emerge from the central trunk at an angle of 40 degrees with the horizontal and extend outward at an angle of about 20 degrees. Once the basic shape of the tree is set, the need for training and pruning diminishes. Also A tree that has become fully shaped while young will not need heavy pruning when mature. However, if left to grow untended when young, the tree may require considerable thinning and pruning each year and may even need major surgical reconstruction when fully grown.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button