Pruning Peach Trees in the Backyard

This peach tree was reduced from about 10 feet to seven so that it would be easier to reach the fruit. All photos courtesy of the author.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it – rehab these two little peach trees for fruit production.

Are they the most optimal tree stock in the most optimal growing site? Of course not. Additionally, they had the bejeesus “pruned” out of them three years ago, leaving the homeowner wondering why they didn’t get any peaches that year. So last year you managed to break in there with some restorative pruning, and the new growth the trees put on late last summer gives you some hope for the future outlook of these struggling plants.

This is the before photo of the same tree shown above.

Great. Let’s start there.

Here are the two targets: two peach trees planted four years ago on a sunny day before the sun dipped behind the house, shading the site for most of the day. They were each knocked over in a windstorm during their first year, righted, staked rigidly, allowed to grow with reduced taper and pruned haphazardly in their second year. So you are dealing with spindly, regenerative, vertical growth – and one tree with a sharp lean. Awesome.

Your supply drop includes your sharp hand pruners as well as some incredible loppers for the bigger branches – but these trees are still pretty small, so hand pruners will probably be the weapon of choice.

Circumnavigate the trees several times to get an idea of the branching structure and basic shape of the tree. You want to know what you’re working with before you start removing branches willy-nilly (see previous mention of “bejeesus pruning”). This restoration pruning will need to be very precise – every branch is reduced (or not) with future growth in mind. The idea is to create an open, spreading branch pattern on these trees. Use the current structure of the tree as a basis for how the tree can grow to support heavy fruit-set down the road.

These trees are about 10 feet tall. You want to be able to reach the fruit, so reduce the overall height of the tree. Find the largest branch (both in diameter and height) growing upward, and reduce it to about seven feet. Then reduce all upward-
growing branches to about that height as well. This might seem counterproductive, since you might have to completely remove some of those reduced branches later, but start with a uniform height.

Reduce branches by about a third to an outward-facing, vegetative bud. Not half, one-third. That means cut the branch down to a growth bud that will eventually be a twig growing into a support branch over time. Then there are the all-important flower buds, which are plump, fuzzy and found on the lower two-thirds of the twigs. The flower buds will grow into fruit, so make sure you leave enough of these buds.

The all-important flower buds, which will grow into fruit, are plump, fuzzy and found on the lower two-thirds of the twigs.

Just like pruning non-fruit trees, don’t make heading cuts between nodes or buds. Good pruning cuts are especially important on fruit trees to encourage good wound closure. This reduces the chances of assault by damaging insect and disease pests.

Once you’ve “shaped” the tree to the preferred height, remove most of the branches growing back into the interior of the tree. Cut out all the deadwood at this point as well.

The pruning objective is two-fold: you want to direct tree growth to promote strong branching structure and a rounded shape, and you want to provide the best setting possible for fruit production. So think about opening up the center of the tree to allow more sunlight to reach both the interior and exterior of the crown. This will play a significant role in fruit growth.

Open the center of the tree by removing smaller branches growing in the same direction on the same limb. You want to stagger them along the limb about 4 to 6 inches apart, so they don’t compete with each other. Whatever you cut off will cause the tree to direct resources to whatever is left. Peach-tree regenerative branches like to shoot for the sky, so if you don’t reduce them at first, the tree will send more resources to them, and you’ll have a lot of unproductive vertical growth.

These small trees need to slow their vertical growth and fill out on the stronger part of the branches. Slowing vertical growth also will help add girth. Right now there isn’t a lot of taper on the stems, and that could lead to breakage in wind events. Peach trees also produce fruit on second-year branches, so the tree needs to stimulate new growth every season to have a continual supply of two- to five-year-old fruiting wood. And you do have the option to leave a few more twigs in certain instances, because next year you’ll need to make more decisions for future growth.

There is no such thing as the perfect peach tree. You will very likely be assigned trees subjected to poor pruning, shaded growing conditions, hard lean and little stem taper – just like these. Gain a good understanding of proper pruning practices before attempting to rehab a fruit tree. These operation protocols are not cemented in stone, but rather, they are guidelines to get you started.

Once you have accepted this mission, this message will self-destruct in five seconds.

Tchukki Andersen, Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP) and Board Certified Master Arborist (BCMA), is staff arborist for the Tree Care Industry Association.

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