Grow the Most Amazing Fruit – By Pruning Your Fruit Trees

Pruning fruit trees produces large, sweet fruit.

Pruning fruit trees produces large, sweet fruit.

Getting the Right Kind of Sugar out of Your Tree

Apples on the branchThe basic idea:
Fruit trees manufacture two main types of sugars: cellulose or fructose. Cellulose is a structural sugar meaning that it is the woody portion of the plant, used simply to give the tree its ability to stand and hold itself up. Fructose is a metabolic sugar meaning that it is the edible sugar in the fruit of the tree that we eat.

The object in pruning fruit trees is to force the tree into investing more of its energy into the manufacture of fructose instead of cellulose; that is, we want the tree to produce lots of big juicy fruits instead of lots of woody growth such as new branches. Pruning fruit trees removes existing wood from the tree thus decreasing the trees options to invest in more woody growth. With fewer cellulose or woody growth options left after a thorough pruning, the tree’s other alternative is to invest more in fructose or the fruit. This is precisely our desire.

The details:
The fascinating thing about trees (or plants in general, for that matter) is their ability to take water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight to make carbohydrates or sugars. Carbon dioxide in the air is literally transformed into sugar. Chemically speaking, there are hundreds of different kinds of sugars and not all carbohydrates are for food. For the purposes of this article, there are two main types of sugars that I will be focusing on: cellulose and fructose.

A dwarf peach tree pruned during the winter and ready to produce tons of juicy peaches (which it did).

A dwarf peach tree pruned during the winter and ready to produce tons of juicy peaches (which it did!)

Cellulose is a structural sugar. Unlike us, plants don’t have bones or any kind of skeletal structure to help them hold themselves up. Instead they use the sugar cellulose which is the main chemical component of wood. It’s amazing to think that the physical strength of wood is created by nothing more than a mere mass of cellulose sugar!

When a tree or a bush grows tall and wide the plant is converting its harvested carbon dioxide into cellulose for the manufacture of all that new woody growth. In fruit trees, however, too much woody growth is not desirable because we want the tree to produce the kind of sugar that we can eat: fructose.

Fructose is a metabolic sugar; that is to say, it’s a sugar we can eat. Fructose is the sugar found in the fruit produced by fruit trees and is what gives the fruit its intense sweet taste that we enjoy so much. When a fruit tree matures it starts to transition, spending less energy on woody growth and more of its energy on producing offspring or seeds which is where the fruit comes from (‘seed’ and ‘fruit’ are actually, botanically speaking, very different but I won’t get into the specifics here).

Even though a mature tree converts less of its harvested carbon dioxide into cellulose development and more into fructose development (woody growth vs. fruit growth), the tree will still continue to grow branches and get taller and wider. Owing to the fact that we are more interested in the fruit of the tree than its wood, our goal in pruning is to encourage the tree to produce more fruit and less wood.

apples on the treePruning fruit trees removes the already existing wood from the tree thereby decreasing the tree’s options of investing in more woody growth. Cellulose and fructose production are two different processes that are essentiall in competition for the tree’s harvested carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is only a mere .04% of the atmosphere and is therefore a limiting factor to the tree’s manufacture of carbohydrates. Removing woody growth quite literally forces a tree into favoring fructose production over cellulose production: this is exactly what we want.

A fruit tree that is well pruned will produce vastly superior quality and quantity of fruit than a fruit tree that has not been pruned in a long time or as they say “has gone to wood.” Notice the picture to the right: I pruned this apple tree quite heavily and the yield in fruit is excellent. What’s even more impressive is that these apples still have a month to go before harvest and they already look fantastic.

The question then becomes how much do we prune? The general rule is this: if, when you are done pruning the tree, it still looks nice you have probably not pruned enough.  If you are serious about excellent fruit quality the pruning will need to be more severe than most people think, especially on peach trees. Unlike other temperate fruit trees, peaches produce fruit on first year branches. This means in order to get the maximum amount of fruit on a peach tree you need the tree to make lots of first-year, or new, branches.  Hence, pruning quite severely on a peach tree forces lots of new branches and with it lots of high quality fruit. The other temperate fruit trees don’t need to be pruned back as severely as does the peach, but they should, in general, be pruned back fairly hard.

European plumsWhere do I start and how do I do this?The first easy thing that should be done is to cut out all dead or diseased wood. Observe the outward appearance of the branches of your tree. Even a complete novice can quickly discern a healthy looking branch from a dead or diseased one.

Dead branches are dry and brittle, alive branches are flexible. Diseased wood is often sunken or cankered in appearance with black flesh or other off-color demarcations. Remove all dead wood and cut diseased wood out at least a few inches (~7.5 cm) below the apparent infection.

Next thin out limbs so that there is no overlap. We don’t want limbs to cross each other: they may rub or bump into each other with some wind and open up wound sites for infection, or they may fuse if already touching which creates very weak, unstable connections. And we don’t want the tree shading itself too much if possible – that is, we want the tree to use its space efficiently.

After these two pruning tips the best thing you can do is simply get in there and keep cutting away with this in mind: err on the side of cutting a little more than not enough. As intimidating as it might seem at first don’t be afraid that your pruning will “hurt” the tree.

When is the best time to prune? The best time to prune fruit trees, and most other plants, is when they are dormant, which is during the winter time. Late winter is best, but any time during dormancy or the winter will do.

grow the most amazing fruit by properly pruning your fruit trees

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10 Responses to Grow the Most Amazing Fruit – By Pruning Your Fruit Trees

  1. Julie Humphreys September 17, 2015 at 8:32 pm #

    Thank you for your wonderful clip about pruning. It was very helpful, especially when I keep looking for clips to help with my fruit pruning. You answered many of my questions! 🙂

    • Anni October 2, 2015 at 8:31 pm #

      We’re glad it was so helpful!

  2. Lisa June 6, 2016 at 10:59 am #

    I saw your video on pruning fruit trees. If you get notification on this post please email. I have 3 dwarf fruit trees and 2 aren’t looking so good. Thank you

  3. Paul August 6, 2016 at 2:09 am #

    Inspirationally excellent presentation and information. Beautiful background too! I’m so glad you two finally got your own place, and I hope you get your own farm soon. What a great team. Your children will be blessed to have such fine parents. It has been a privilege to visit with you this evening, all the way from Australia. I look forward to future visits to your inviting and worthwhile cyber-school. Thank you.

  4. Pamela Peerce-Landers October 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm #

    Great video. I now know how to prune my 30-yr old apple trees and I understand why it is important. The open center thing reminds me of how a local orchard’s trees looked. (They have lost many of their trees. I live in southeastern PA.)

    I must admit I neglected them because I did not keep up with the spraying. Dormant oil spray on the winter more toxic ones during the growing season. So my apples were small and deformed with small black spots on them.

    Consequently, my two trees “went to wood” big time, not having been pruned for over 20 years.

    What you do recommend regarding spraying?


    • Anni October 15, 2016 at 10:40 pm #

      This year we are having to spray our peach trees with a fungicide, or we’ll lose them. I don’t relish it. I believe it’s a copper spray that we’ll be using. Other than that, we typically avoid sprays altogether.
      What type of apple variety (or varieties) do you have?

  5. Alan July 20, 2017 at 9:47 am #

    I don’t know if you are just using the wrong name or what, but peach trees do not produce fruit on first year growth. They produce fruit on second year growth. The year after the branch first appears is called second year growth and that is when it produces fruit. Peach fruit requires the entire season to develop and begins to do so very early in the season, it does not wait weeks or months until new branches have grown and then develop on them the same season. They grow at the same time and then the new branches produce fruit the next year as “second year” growth. The short (12-24in) red shoots all over the tree (he called them frizz) are the second year fruiting wood, if you remove them (as he did) you will get very little fruit. You are free to verify what I have said pretty much anywhere you want, here is a good .edu example:

    Most of what you have said here is correct, but this needs clarification.

    • Anni September 23, 2017 at 9:10 pm #

      Thank you so much for your comment and your added information. I’ll edit the article, and I’m always grateful when people point out mistakes so we can all learn more. Thank you for taking the time to write in such detail!

  6. Liwayway Cooper August 29, 2017 at 5:59 am #

    We planted several fruit trees (peaches, apples, plum, pear, raspberries, blueberries) 3 years ago. Last year, we harvested one peach from our tree and it was so sweet and so are raspberries. This year, we harvested bout a dozen peaches and they are so sour but juicy, and so are the raspberries. Please advise. We had so many japanese beetles last year that we thought we lost all of our trees. Do we need to prune them like you did? I just want to have nice, sweet fruits. Thank you for your attention.

    • Anni September 23, 2017 at 9:15 pm #

      Sour fruit often has to do with one of two things: variety, or plant stress.
      Since you tasted both the peach and the raspberries last year and they were sweet, I would hazard a guess that the plants are under some stress. Water stress is my first thought. But since the peaches were juicy, that doesn’t seem likely.
      Were the peaches as large as you’d expect them to be, or were they smaller? Were they fully ripe?
      What about the raspberries, were they as juicy? Do they look like they have experienced water stress?
      It’s possible that the Japanese beetles stressed the trees so much that it didn’t have the energy to put the proper sugars into the fruit because it was trying to focus on regaining energy after being decimated last year. It’s also possible that a good pruning would allow the tree to put more energy into the fruit (and less into growing) so you’d get sweeter fruit. It’s hard to say for sure, but hopefully this gives you some ideas. Feel free to upload a picture to our FB page, or send it to me in a message on our FB page, and I’ll have my husband take a look at it too.

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