Pruning a newly-planted fruit tree

After you have planted a new fruit tree (see guide on how to plant a fruit tree), you might need to carry out a one-time initial pruning. If pruning is required, for apples and pears it can be done immediately (as long as the weather is mild). For plums and cherries and other stone fruits it is usually better to wait until late winter when you can see the tree is coming out of dormancy.

The decision on whether the initial prune is required or not depends on several factors - the age of the tree when purchased, the rootstock, and whether it is supplied in a pot or bare-root.

Almost all 1-year trees will require pruning, as will many but not all 2-year trees. Initial pruning is particularly important for 1-year trees - 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.

Your new tree Initial pruning straight after planting
Bare-root fastigiate crab-apple (e.g. Laura, Aros, Admiration) Do not prune.
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") 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 or spindle-bush tree 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 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 1 year-old bare-root fruit trees with no side-branches ("feathers") or just 1-2 side-branches

Cutting the tree, just above 2 budsCutting the tree, just above 2 buds

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 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. Please do not take these suggestions too literally, it is best to cut just above a good cluster of buds at the approximate height suggested.

  • 8" / 20cm for a step-over (usually on the M27 or Quince C 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.

In some cases we may have already cut the tree back to around 40" / 1m, in order to fit the delivery carton. If you can see a recent pruning cut then no further pruning will be needed. If in doubt please feel free to contact us.

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 are 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 1 or 2 year-old 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 to help the tree establish. Note that in some cases we might have done some last minute pruning to allow the tree to fit in the delivery carton, so if you see fresh pruning cuts then no further pruning will be required.

If your tree is a 1-year tree (and is not being trained as a "standard") you should 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 a 1-year 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.

If your tree is a 2-year tree, just cut back the main shoots by about a quarter, and leave the main stem unless it is much longer than the others.

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

If your tree has been trained as a spindle-bush, you can prune back the side-shoots as above, but in most cases you can leave the central leader (main stem) un-cut.

(C) Initial pruning of 2-year 1.75m standard bare-root trees

You would normally have a purchased one of these trees if you intend to train it on as a "standard" with a 6ft-7ft / 2m clear stem. The tree will have been pruned by us before delivery so you probably won't need to do anything at the time of planting. The following winter / early spring (a year after planting) you can prune out any of the lower side-shoots below the height at which you intend to form the crown.

(D) Initial pruning of 2-year pot-grown fan-trained trees

We usually leave the central stem, known as the "leader", in place on these trees to give you maximum flexibility in how you wish to train the tree in the longer term. However in the majority of cases if you just want a simple spreading fan-shaped tree then you should either prune the leader back by half or remove it altogether. This process will encourage secondary shoots to emerge from the existing arms, which will radiate out to to fill the wall or fence. If in doubt it is usually best to remove the leader altogether, either in early spring of the year of planting or the following spring.

Further 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.

Other tasks when planting a new fruit tree.

Our fruit tree pruning service.