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Pruning a newly-planted fruit tree

As soon as you have planted a new fruit tree (see guide on how to plant a fruit tree), you may need to carry out a one-time initial pruning. The tree may not establish successfully if you do not prune it.

The following table shows all the types of fruit trees we supply, and the initial pruning required after planting (if any). Find the entry in the first column that most closely matches your tree, and then review the pruning requirements in the second column.

Bare-root fastigiate crab-apples (e.g. Laura, Aros, Admiration) or Ballerina apple treesDo not prune.

Your new tree Initial pruning straight after planting
Bare-root fastigiate crab-apples (e.g. Laura, Aros, Admiration) or Ballerina apple trees Do not prune.
Bare-root spindlebush tree Pruning not required.
Bare-root 1-year tree on a very vigorous rootstock to be trained as a standard Pruning not usually required, but trim back any side shoots. (Very vigorous rootstocks include M25, Brompton, Pyrus, F12/1).
Bare-root 1-year tree with no or very few side-branches ("maiden whip") Pruning required.
See instructions (A) below.
Bare-root 1-year tree with 3-4 or more side-branches ("feathered maiden") Pruning required.
See instructions (B) below.
Bare-root 2-year bush-trained Pruning required.
See instructions (B) below.
Pot-grown 3L container - 1-year tree Pruning required.
If the tree has no side shoots see instructions (A) below. If there are well-developed side shoots prune following instructions (B) below.
Bare-root 2-year tree with central leader Pruning may be required.
See instructions (B) below.
Bare-root 2-year half-standard tree Pruning required.
See instructions (B) below.
Bare-root 2-year 1.75m standard tree Pruning optional.
See instructions (C) below.
Pot-grown 7L or 12L container or pot-net fruit tree or ornamental tree - bush-trained or patio-trained Do not prune.
Pot-grown 12L container fruit tree - half-standard Do not prune.
Pot-grown 12L container family fruit tree Do not prune.
Pot-grown 12L container ornamental or crab-apple tree - half-standard or semi-vigorous Do not prune.
Pot-grown 12L container fruit tree - cordon-trained Do not prune.
Bare-root tree - cordon-trained Do not prune.
Pot-grown 12L container fruit tree - fan-trained Review instructions (D) below.
Pot-grown 12L container fruit tree - espalier-trained Do not prune.
1-year bare-root tree which you intend to train as a fan / espalier or other restricted form Special pruning will be required, see our article on training fruit trees as fans or espaliers as a starting point.

 

If you need to do an initial prune, the following sections tell you how.

(A) Initial pruning of bare-root fruit trees with no side-branches ("feathers") or just 1-2 side-branches

After planting or during the first winter before the tree breaks from dormancy in spring you must cut back the 1-year tree, a process known as "heading" or "topping". This has two benefits. Firstly it restores the balance of the tree between the top part and the roots, since the roots naturally get disturbed during the transplanting process. Secondly, it encourages side-branches to form at the correct height for the growing tree the following spring. It may feel counter-intuitive to do this, since in effect you are cutting a brand-new tree in half and throwing most of it away - but it is the best thing to do. If you do not prune the tree back the chances of it establishing successfully are greatly reduced.

The height at which you make the cut is determined by how you want the tree to grow. Here are some guidelines, the height being measured from the soil level:

  • 8" / 20cm for a step-over (usually on the M27 or G65 rootstock)
  • 16" / 40cm for a fan or espalier
  • 36" / 80cm for a bush or cordon
  • 40" / 1m for a central leader or spindlebush
  • 4ft / 1.2m for half-standard on MM106 rootstock

If you are not sure, then a height of about 3ft / 1m (36-40 inches) is a good compromise for most rootstocks, or just under 30" / 0.75m for very dwarfing rootstocks such as M27 or G65.

When making the cut, use sharp secateurs, locate a bud at the approximate height, and make a slanting cut away from the bud. Practice first higher up the tree or on a thin branch from another tree if necessary.

If there 1-2 side-branches, cut them right back to about 1" / 2cm.

If you need any help, send us a photograph of the tree and we can advise further.

 

(B) Initial pruning of bare-root fruit trees with 3 or more side branches ("feathers")

The simple rule of thumb for this pruning step is to cut back the main shoots by 1/2 of their length.

If your tree is a 1-year tree (and is not being trained as a "standard") you must also prune the leading stem (if there is one) back to about 1m / 36-40". This might sound drastic, but it makes all the difference in helping the tree to continue growing when it comes out of dormancy in the spring. Note that in some cases we may have done this at the nursery just prior to shipping, in which case you will not need to prune again - the fresh pruning cuts will be quite obvious.

You can also remove any side-branches below 18" - 24" / 0.5m, as these are too low to be usable.

 

Further pruning and training advice

Why don't you need to prune 2-year pot-grown trees straight after planting?

You should not prune our 2-year container-grown trees, for two reasons. Firstly, the large container means the roots are less likely to be damaged when you plant the tree, hence there is no need to restore balance by pruning the top of the tree. Secondly, these trees have already been summer-pruned prior to delivery, to encourage fruit buds to form for the following season - so no further pruning is required for a year or so.

Isn't it dangerous to prune plum and cherry trees in winter?

You may be aware that plums, gages, mirabelles and cherries should not usually be pruned in the winter. The reasoning is that the pruning cut provides an entry point for the fungal disease silverleaf, which is particularly dangerous for these kinds of fruit trees and is at its most active in autumn and winter. However the initial pruning is still important to encourage the young tree to start producing a fruiting framework of branches. One therefore has to balance the need for the initial pruning with the need to avoid exposing the tree to unnecessary infection. For these species it is therefore probably best to wait until late winter, at a time when the weather is mild and dry and forecast to remain so. If you prefer not to prune at this point then you can wait until spring is clearly under way, and when you can see signs that the tree is starting to "move" and buds are beginning to break. The same advice applies to damsons trees, although as it happens they have a better resistance to silverleaf infection than most plum varieties.

What pruning is needed if we are using tree-guards (spiral guards or similar)?

Tree-guards are not recommended for fruit trees because they create an unhealthy microclimate around the graft-union. However if there is a threat of rabbits in the area then they are likely to be essential, since rabbits pose an immediate threat to new fruit trees. In this situation prune off all side-shoots that are low on the stem and would become constrained inside the guard.